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date: 17 November 2019

Carson, Rachel Louisefree

(27 May 1907–14 April 1964)
  • Linda J. Lear

Rachel Carson

Speaking before the Senate Government Operations subcommittee studying pesticide spraying, 1963.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111207).

Carson, Rachel Louise (27 May 1907–14 April 1964), writer and scientist, was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Robert Warden Carson, a salesman, and Maria Frazier McLean, a teacher. Her father was never successfully employed. He sold real estate and insurance and worked for the local public utility company. Her mother, who had had the benefit of a fine education at the Washington Female Seminary, was an avid naturalist and passed on her deep respect for the natural world and her love of literature to her daughter. Mother and daughter, who never married, lived together almost continuously until Maria Carson died in 1958.

As a child, Carson read and wrote stories about birds and other woodland creatures that she and her mother encountered on their frequent outdoor excursions. She won the first of several literary prizes at age ten for a story published in St. Nicholas Magazine. By the time she graduated from high school she was a skilled naturalist and a student with recognized literary talent.

In 1925 Carson entered Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in Pittsburgh as a scholarship student. She was a reserved but self-confident English major whose social life was limited by her impecuniousness, but she excelled academically. A required course in biology given by Mary Scott Skinker, a brilliant young zoology professor, inspired Carson to change her major to biology in her junior year. Skinker had a profound impact on Carson, who modeled her life and career after her teacher. Carson graduated magna cum laude in 1929 and won a place that summer as “beginning investigator” at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she saw the ocean for the first time and embarked upon a lifelong study of marine life. She won a small stipend for graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, where she began a master’s degree program in zoology in the fall of 1929.

Carson was single-minded about preparing for a career in science at a time when very few women could find professional positions. She consulted with established scientists at Woods Hole and sought advice from Skinker, who sent her to biologist Elmer Higgins, her future supervisor, at the Bureau of Fisheries. Carson completed an M.A. in zoology in 1932 while teaching part-time at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland. Although she intended to continue graduate work, her family’s financial situation and the depression precluded it. When her father and older sister died suddenly in 1935 and 1937, respectively, Carson became the sole support of an extended family that included her mother and her sister’s two young daughters.

Carson found a part-time job as an aide at the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Fisheries field office in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1935. She wrote radio scripts for a series on marine life called “Romance under the Waters” and, to supplement her government income, natural history features for the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine. The following year she entered the federal service as a junior aquatic biologist after placing first on the women’s register. At that time she was one of two female professionals at the bureau, which in 1939 was combined with the U.S. Biological Survey to create the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carson worked her way up the bureaucratic ladder as a science writer and editor rather than a field biologist. Higgins encouraged her to submit an essay she had written for government publication to the Atlantic Monthly, which published it in 1937. The essay, “Undersea,” received critical notice and the interest of Quincy Howe, an editor at Simon and Schuster who suggested that she expand it into a book. Under the Sea-Wind appeared just before the outbreak of World War II in 1941. It was hailed by such scientists as oceanographer William Beebe, but because of the war, it sold poorly.

In 1946 Carson was promoted from the Office of Fishery Coordination to the Division of Information where by 1949 she was the editor of all Fish and Wildlife Service publications. She developed a series of pamphlets on the nation’s refuge system called “Conservation in Action.” The four pamphlets Carson wrote herself are distinguished by their scientific accuracy and sensitivity to ecological relationships. Carson’s editorial work demanded both wide-ranging knowledge and scientific breadth. It required that she be familiar with the scientific background of every subject that came across her desk. It also exposed her to a variety of field environments that she later used in her writing. Carson was temperamentally suited to the routine of the federal bureaucracy and enjoyed the collegial atmosphere. Her writing was encouraged in this supportive environment, and her emotional and intellectual connection with nature was given both an outlet and a framework.

Her increasing editorial responsibilities, however, dramatically slowed the pace of her own writing. It took her a decade to produce her next and most popular sea book, The Sea Around Us, published in 1951. One chapter, “The Birth of an Island,” had appeared earlier in the Yale Review and won Carson the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Sea Around Us was serialized in the New Yorker, where it captivated scientists and the public alike. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for a record eighty-six weeks. Its success resulted in the reissue that same year of Under the Sea-Wind, which also became a bestseller and contains some of her finest nature writing. There was almost no precedent for a book of such scientific scholarship that was at once a lyrical description of the wonders of nature and fine literature. Through Carson’s synthesis of the extant knowledge of marine life, readers became sensitive to the fragile interdependence of life. Carson was awarded the John Burroughs Medal and the National Book Award and was chosen “woman of the year in literature” by the Associated Press. The Sea Around Us established Carson as the preeminent natural science writer of the day and won her international acclaim.

Royalties from The Sea Around Us enabled Carson to retire from government service in 1952 and to build a cottage on the Sheepscot River in Maine, where she retreated to work each summer. The last volume in the sea’s biography, The Edge of the Sea, was completed in 1955 and like its predecessor was a bestseller. It contains her finest poetic evocation of life along the shore as well as the delicate ecological balance between sea and shore. Although it did not garner the record sales of The Sea Around Us, it was the book she most enjoyed writing because she was able to work on it in Maine, near her close friends Dorothy and Stan Freeman.

Carson was fascinated by the ocean and its mysteries as well as by the shoreline of life between the sea and the land. Her nature writing enthralled millions of readers, introducing them to the myriad of intricate interrelationships that were basic to the science of ecology. Embedded within her writing was the view that human beings were but one part of nature, distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly. Believing that science and literature were equal in their ability to illuminate and inspire, Carson sought to educate the public about the natural world in terms that, while scientifically accurate, also embodied the poetic truths she found in nature.

Uncertain which of several projects to pursue next, Carson completed an important article in 1956 on preserving a child’s sense of wonder in nature, which was posthumously published as The Sense of Wonder (1965). She produced a television script for the “Omnibus” series on clouds and a juvenile edition of The Sea Around Us and advocated the preservation of certain areas of seashore as wilderness in an essay for Holiday magazine. Before her death, she leant her support to legislation for the humane treatment of animals, particularly those used in scientific experiments. A series of unforeseen events determined that Carson’s next project would not continue her mystical exploration of the natural world but warn of the potential for ecological disaster as a result of the careless misuse of chemical pesticides.

Synthetic hydrocarbon pesticides, products of wartime technology, revolutionized domestic agriculture in the 1950s because of their persistence and effectiveness. As a Fish and Wildlife editor, Carson had been on the periphery of scientific debates over the use of such chemicals as DDT, but her interest in pollutants and poisons began as early as 1938. Her immediate attention to pesticide abuse was directed by a friend in Duxbury, Massachusetts, who complained of the disastrous effects that DDT had had on birds during a state mosquito control program and asked Carson for information. Ever since 1945 when she tried unsuccessfully to interest Reader's Digest in publishing an article on the potential hazards of DDT use, Carson had been following the problem of pesticide pollution. Carson’s research was assisted by material collected as a result of a suit brought against the federal government’s insect eradication program on Long Island, New York, by concerned amateur scientists Marjorie Spock, sister of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Mary Richards and joined by ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy. About the same time pesticides made political news when the Department of Agriculture was publicly criticized for its ill-conceived extermination campaign against the imported fire ant in the southeastern United States, which resulted in much harm to wildlife and the water supply. Carson took part in local conservation protests against the government program.

Reluctantly concluding that no magazine would publish an article on such a distasteful subject as pesticide pollution, she embarked on a book, originally proposed to her Houghton Mifflin editor Paul Brooks as “The Control of Nature” in 1958. As her research progressed, however, Carson came to believe that everything that meant the most to her was being threatened by the careless use of these new chemicals. Likening the effects of pesticides to those of atomic radiation, she became an unabashed crusader for change in the government’s policy of pesticide approval and use. The result, Silent Spring (1962), was a powerful critique of the Cold War culture that condoned such crude and short-sighted tampering with the natural world. The book indicted the chemical industry, the government, and agribusiness for indiscriminately using pesticides without knowing more about their long-term effects. Once again serialized by the New Yorker in advance of publication, the book caused a sensation. In clear, often beautiful prose Carson demonstrated that chemical pesticides were potential biocides that threatened humankind and nature with extinction. She used the impact of pesticides to illustrate that man, like other species, was a vulnerable part of the earth’s ecosystem.

Silent Spring and its author were immediately attacked by the scientific establishment and the powerful agrichemical industry. Mounting a quarter-million-dollar publicity campaign, the industry attacked her as an hysterical woman as well as a poor scientist and accused her of needlessly alarming the public. Nonetheless, Silent Spring caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who called for an investigation of the issues it raised. The 1963 report of a special panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee supported Carson’s conclusions. Regulatory hearings by a U.S. Senate subcommittee chaired by Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff at which Carson testified followed. The public responded by calling for state and federal regulation of pesticide control programs and the elimination of the use of some compounds. Carson was acclaimed by the public and received numerous scientific and literary awards, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The writing of Silent Spring was also an act of extraordinary moral and physical courage for Carson, who endured what she called a “catalogue of illnesses.” Belatedly diagnosed with a rapidly metastasizing breast cancer and suffering crippling arthritis, throughout the four years of research and writing, she was uncertain she would live to see her work completed. She died in Silver Spring, Maryland, just eighteen months after its publication.

Carson’s meticulous scientific research and her spiritual connection with nature inspired a group of younger activists to demand that the government act to protect human health and regulate activities that affect the environment. Her work also helped expand the definition of environmental protection, and it encouraged conservation organizations to embrace a broader ecological orientation that included wilderness, habitat, and species preservation. Generally credited as being the fountainhead of the environmental movement, Carson helped democratize science by challenging scientists, government officials, and industry executives to understand the impact of new technologies and by forcing the citizenry to become part of the growing debate over technological advances of all kinds. She demonstrated that government had failed to protect the public adequately and that new policies were necessary. Although some of the research Carson used has been refined, her fears about chemical pollution were stated conservatively. Some chemicals have been banned from the United States, yet more powerful ones have taken their place, and some that were banned have returned to these shores via an agricultural import “cycle of poison.” Americans still struggle to heed her warnings, but her witness for the whole of nature has continued to inspire later generations. Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Bibliography

Carson’s letters, papers, and holograph manuscripts are part of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The Lear/Carson Collection, which includes primary and secondary material, photographs, college reminiscences, miscellaneous reviews, newspaper clippings, oral interviews, and a manuscript account of the Silent Spring controversy, as well as primary material from related scientists and friends, is in the Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Shain Library, Connecticut College.

Linda Lear's biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997) provides the fullest account of Carson's life and work. A view of Carson's important friendship with Dorothy Freeman comes from Martha Freeman, ed., Always Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman (1995). Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (1998), edited by Linda Lear, is an anthology including unpublished work by Carson that updates material included in the still valuable Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work (1998; a revised edition of The House of Life [1972]) by Carson's editor Paul Brooks. His chapter on Carson in his book Speaking for Nature (1983) is a fine critique of her naturalist legacy. An ecocritical view of Carson's work is provided by Cheryl Glotfelty in John Elder, ed., American Nature Writers (1996), which expands upon themes in Carol Gartner's literary biography Rachel Carson (1993).

Frank Graham, Jr.'s Since Silent Spring (1970) remains a valuable summary of the pesticide controversy. An important aspect of the controversy is conveyed by the rhetorical analyses in Craig Waddell, ed., And No Birds Sing (2000). Yaakov Garb writes about Carson's politics of nature in David Macauley, ed., Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology (1996). Kirkpatrick Sale, The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement 1962–1992 (1993), and Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (1993), variously evaluate Carson's role in the larger environmental movement. Lear's article “Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring,’” Environmental History Review 17, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 23–48, puts Carson and the pesticide controversy in broader historical perspective, as do essays by Lear and Edward O. Wilson in the 40th-anniversary edition of Silent Spring (2002).

H. Patricia Hynes provides a feminist perspective on Carson's life and the controversy in The Recurring Silent Spring (1989), as does Michael B. Smith in “Silence Miss Carson!,” Feminist Studies 27, no. 3 (2001): 733–54. Vera Norwood argues for a gendered reading of Carson's work in Made from This Earth (1993). Government and industry reaction is reevaluated in G. Marco, R. Hollingsworth, and W. Durham, eds., Silent Spring Revisited (1987). Linda Lear gives an appraisal of the federal scientific community's reaction to Silent Spring in “Bombshell in Beltsville: The USDA and the Challenge of Silent Spring,” Agricultural History 66, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 151–70. Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (1997), looks at Carson as a role model and an eco-hero as well as a pioneer in the management of her breast cancer treatment, and Ellen Leopold, A Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century (1999), examines Carson's important relationship with her physician George Crile and her fight against cancer.

Two television documentaries are excellent sources. CBS Reports, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” (1963), is an invaluable tool for understanding the participants, and the PBS “American Experience” documentary “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring” (1993) contains important interviews with Carson’s colleagues and critics. An obituary is in the New York Times, 15 Apr. 1964.