Rachel Carson played a key role in birth of environmentalism in the 20th century.
A zoologist by training, she resigned from the government’s Fish and Wildlife Service when her book The Sea Around Us became an award-winning bestseller; her distinctive writing was both scientifically clear and linguistically evocative.
In the late 1950s, she became increasingly aware of the harmful effects chemicals such as the insecticide DDT were having on the environment. This pushed her to write her most famous work Silent Spring and then defend herself against attacks from commercial interests while fighting a personal battle with cancer.
Silent Spring sold over 2 million copies, converting a large number of people to environmentalism. It also played an influential part in persuading governments to ban or heavily restrict the use of DDT and similar chemicals which persist in the environment.
Rachel Louise Carson was born on her family’s 64-acre homestead near the small town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, USA on May 27, 1907.Rachel’s father, Robert Carson, was a traveling insurance salesman who was often absent from home.
Her mother, Maria McLean, had been educated at an elite Presbyterian high school in Washington D.C. and was an accomplished singer and musician; before marriage she had been a school teacher.
Rachel was the youngest of her parents’ three children – her sister Marian and brother Robert were ten and eight years older than her.
Although the Carson’s home had plenty of land, the family had very little money. Their home had no indoor plumbing and no electricity.
An Early Love of Nature and ReadingRachel inherited her love of nature from her mother, and the two spent most of Rachel’s early years together outdoors enjoying the flora and fauna on their homestead.
Rachel fused her love of nature with a love of reading. Her preferred literature usually featured animals: her favorite author was Beatrix Potter, and her favorite story was Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.
She loved the nature novels of Gene Stratton Porter and later the sea stories of Joseph Conrad.
Budding Writer Sells her Stories and is Top of Class
At about age eight, Rachel began writing stories.Every month the family bought a copy of St. Nicholas, a children’s magazine full of stories, poems, puzzles, and games. One section was the St. Nicholas League, which published readers’ work.
In May 1918, age 11, Rachel sent a story to the St. Nicholas League called A Battle in the Clouds. The story was inspired by a letter from her brother Robert, serving in the Army Air Service in France.
Rachel’s story was published four months later. By August 1919, St. Nicholas had published three more of her stories – all with military themes – and sent her $10.
Two years later, the magazine paid her a cent a word for a story so good they used it to generate publicity.
Meanwhile, at school in Springdale, Rachel scored straight As in her academic work. Her mother was determined to give her clever daughter a good enough education to allow her to achive her full potential, something she was rather bitter about not achieving in her own life.
In 1923, age 16, Rachel started at Parnassus High School. Two miles from Springdale, it was reputed to have excellent teachers. Rachel graduated first in her class in May 1925.
Parental Sacrifices and College
In the fall of 1925, Rachel became a freshman at the elite Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh, commonly referred to as PCW (now Chatham University). She won a $100 scholarship for tuition and another paying $100 for living expenses, but her tuition and boarding fees were almost $800.
To fund their daughter, her cash-strapped parents subdivided and mortgaged some land and put it up for sale. Her mother gave piano lessons and did odd jobs for people in town.
Rachel did not make friends easily at college. She was seen as cool and detached. At weekends she either went home or her mother came to stay at college; her fellow students thought this was a strange and somewhat suffocating situation, and they made fun of Rachel. Throughout her undergraduate years, she also suffered badly with acne on her face and shoulders.
In the end, Rachel made a handful of friends by helping people with their work. Her friends discovered that she was not aloof. Although her behavior in classes was self-assured, she was actually shy about personal relationships and friendships.
Money Problems & Honors
After a year at college, Rachel had not fully paid her tuition fees. The college told her parents she was doing very well at school and benefactors had paid Rachel’s fees for her freshman year.
Rachel had intended majoring in English and becoming a writer, but her love of the natural world triumphed and she majored in biology. She did not abandon writing though; she joined the college newspaper’s staff and wrote regularly for it.
She was one of only three students in the PCW class of 1929 who graduated magna cum laude (with great honor).
The Great Depression began two months after Rachel graduated.
Graduate School & More Money Problems
In the fall of 1929, Rachel Carson began graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, studying zoology and genetics.
Money was a major problem: she owed Pennsylvania College $1,600. After just a year at graduate school she abandoned full-time schooling to earn money working as a laboratory assistant.
In June 1932, age 25, Carson graduated with a master’s degree in zoology.
She hoped to complete a Ph.D., but her parents, who had done so much to support her financially, could no longer keep the wolf from the door; they were in desperate straits themselves. Rachel signed over land around the family homestead at Springdale to PCW to clear her college debt.
She quit graduate school in 1934. The following year her father died at age 71.
A Full-time Job
Carson got a temporary job blending her skills in zoology and writing; she wrote radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries’ weekly educational broadcast: Romance Under the Waters. Bureau staff were delighted with Carson’s work. Her scripts received a much more enthusiastic response from listeners than any of her predecessors’ had.
The Bureau requested that she sit the civil service exam. She came top of the women candidates. In 1936, she became a junior aquatic biologist. She was grateful for the secure government job – hard to come by in the depression. Her finances were finally on firm ground.
Working full-time in Baltimore, Carson authored government pamphlets and studied fish populations. She also wrote freelance newspaper and magazine articles about the natural world – especially the oceans.
Carson wrote her first book Under the Sea-Wind in 1941. The critics loved it, but it received minimal publicity. Just a few weeks after it came out, the Japanese Navy launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. In the ensuing turmoil, the American public lost its appetite for books about the natural world. Carson’s book was forgotten.
An Enormously Successful Author
Determined to succeed as an author, in 1948 Carson began planning a second book and engaged the services of a literary agent, Marie Rodell.
Meanwhile, her work was earning an impressive reputation in the civil service. In 1949, she was appointed Chief Editor of Publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Carson completed her book The Sea Around Us in 1950. The New Yorker serialized several chapters before the book’s release in July 1951.
The Sea Around Us was a stunning success. It held top spot on the New York Times Best Seller List for 39 weeks, selling over 250,000 copies in six months.
The following year brought Carson recognition on an impressive scale. First, she won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Then came the 1952 John Burroughs Medal for the most distinguished natural history book – this was the award she had truly coveted. There were also a number of gold medals and honorary doctorates, including one from her alma mater.
Her forgotten first book was rediscovered, joining The Sea Around Us on the Best Seller List.
Requests for TV, radio, and newspaper interviews flooded in – most of which Carson politely declined. Fan mail arrived by the sackful and people recognized her in public places. She found the whole ‘celebrity’ business highly stressful.
Nevertheless, at age 45, she had finally reached the destination she had dreamed of 34 years earlier: she was a successful author. She quit her government job in the summer of 1952.
A documentary based on The Sea Around Us won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, but Carson believed it was inaccurate and did not reflect her work properly. It was the last time she sold film rights to any of her works.
Carson released her third book, The Edge of the Sea, and continued writing articles for magazines and newspapers.
Silent Spring and Environmentalism
Carson converted large numbers of people to environmentalism. She grabbed their attention with Silent Spring, her most influential book. Published in September 1962, it dealt powerfully with human-sourced destruction of the natural world. Eventually, over 2 million copies sold.
Carson was worried that chemicals such as DDT had been rushed into large-scale usage before anyone had research their environmental effects. She sought to bring the world’s attention to evidence researchers were accumulating showing that pesticides were killing many more creatures than just their intended targets. These chemicals were being sprayed routinely over large tracts of land in America and elsewhere.
Silent Spring begins with the tale of a fictitious town epitomizing middle-America. The town becomes blighted: sheep and cattle sicken and die; people fall ill in ways doctors have not seen before; there are unexplained fatalities; the birdlife disappears; the bees disappear and the orchards bear no fruit; vegetation withers; and the rivers are lifeless – the fish have all died.
There is no malign outside influence to blame for the disaster; the people have caused it themselves with their use of chemicals. The poisons they forced upon the environment have come back to attack them.
Carson notes that no single community she knows has suffered all of these misfortunes, but the misfortunes she describes are real; they have all happened somewhere, and some towns have suffered multiple misfortunes.
Carson was highly persuasive. She argued it was in best interests of her readers to do something about pesticides like DDT that lingered unseen in the food chain until humans – adults and children – ended up ingesting them and suffering ill-effects.
She was angry about the contamination of ecosystems, anger sharpened by her own plight: she wrote the book while suffering from terminal cancer.
She appealed to her readers to make the world a better place. Although desperately ill and in constant pain, she gave media interviews and appeared on TV to make her case.
Enter the Government
The government could not ignore the controversy and public alarm provoked by Silent Spring.
A presidential taskforce reviewed all government departments’ policies on chemical pollution. In August 1962, President John F. Kennedy was asked if people in the government were doing anything about the use of DDT and other pesticides. Kennedy replied:
President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee released its report on May 15, 1963, broadly supporting Carson, observing:
“…until the publication of Silent Spring, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.”
“…the accretion of residues in the environment can be controlled only by orderly reductions of persistent pesticides.”
After much political infighting and resistance from the commercial sector, the use of DDT in agriculture was banned in the USA in 1972, greatly reducing harm to the environment. Numbers of America’s national bird, the bald eagle, which had fallen to just 500 nesting pairs in the contiguous USA in the 1950s have since recovered to about 100,000 – DDT in the food chain had made the birds’ eggshells so fragile that eggs broke before chicks were old enough to hatch
The 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants banned DDT and other organochlorine pesticides for most uses worldwide. They they are still permitted for control of malaria. This would have suited Carson, who never proposed an outright ban – she wanted the indiscriminate use of pesticides halted.
Carson helped people see that our technology can cause planet-wide harm to ecosystems. Any harm we do has the potential to rebound on us. It is in our long-term interests to be cautious in our approach to the environment.
Some Personal Details and the End
Carson never married and had no children. Her mother was always the most important person in her life, sharing her home and acting as her housekeeper and secretary. In their later years, they lived at the northern tip of Washington D.C in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Carson’s elder sister Marian died of pneumonia in 1937. Marian’s husband had deserted her and their two daughters a few years earlier. Carson took the girls into her home. Carson’s mother, who was almost 70 years old, looked after them while Carson’s salary paid the bills. Carson and her mother cared for the girls until they were adults.
In 1952, following the success of The Sea Around Us, Carson had a cottage built on Southport Island, overlooking Sheepscot Bay on Maine’s coast. She and her mother spent summers there enjoying the sea and the shore, escaping Maryland’s heat and humidity. Their neighbors were Dorothy and Stanley Freeman. Carson was romantically attracted to Dorothy Freeman, and the two became close friends.
In 1957, aged 50, Carson adopted and became mother to her orphaned five-year-old grandnephew Roger Christie.
In December 1958, Carson’s beloved mother died at age 89.
In April 1960, Carson was hospitalized for removal of cysts from her left breast. The surgeon ended up performing major breast cancer surgery on her. She did not know it then, but she had only three years of life remaining.
In January 1963, Carson was diagnosed with heart disease – angina. The angina was no doubt caused by frequent high doses of radiation she was enduring to ward off breast cancer. However, cancer had now spread into her bones. She was now confined to a wheelchair. By March 1964, the cancer had spread to her liver. Her heart-condition greatly increased the risks of any procedures, but surgeons pressed on and surgically inserted a radioactive implant to attack the cancer. Carson returned to her home in Silver Spring on April 6.
Rachel Carson died of a heart attack on April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland. She was 56 years old.
Half of her ashes were buried in her mother’s grave at Parklawn Memorial Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland, and the other half were scattered by Dorothy Freeman on the coast of Sheepscot Bay. Carson’s will provided generously for the future of her adopted son Roger Christie, who came under the guardianship of Carson’s close friend Paul Brooks, senior editor at Carson’s publishers Houghton Mifflin, and his wife Susie.
Author of this page: The Doc
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"Rachel Carson." Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 6 Dec. 2016. Web. <www.famousscientists.org/rachel-carson/>.
Rachel L. Carson
Under the Sea-Wind
Oxford University Press, 1952
Rachel L. Carson
The Sea Around Us
Oxford University Press, 1953
The Edge of the Sea
Houghton Mifflin, 1955
Houghton Mifflin, 1962
Rachel Carson: The Life of the Author of Silent Spring
Penguin Group, 1997
On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
Crown Publishers, 2012