American Author, Biologist, and Environmentalist
Rachel Carson made a career of her lifelong fascination with wildlife and the environment around her and became one of the pioneers of the environmental movement in the United States. Her mother taught her to enjoy the outdoors. On graduation from Parnassas High School in Pennsylvania, Carson enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh, planning to study
Carson went on to do postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University, obtaining a master's degree in 1932. She joined the zoology staff at the University of Maryland in 1931. Carson developed a particular interest in the life of the sea, which led her into further postgraduate research at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. In 1936, she accepted a position as an aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, D.C. She went on to be editor in chief at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the successor to the Bureau of Fisheries. Here she prepared leaflets and informational brochures on conservation and the protection of natural resources.
Rachel Carson's first book, Under the Sea Wind, appeared in 1941 with the subtitle "a naturalist's picture of ocean life." The book, which grew from Carson's fascination with the seashore and the ocean as a result of vacations on the Atlantic coast, was well received. The narrative told the story of the seashore, the open sea, and the sea bottom.
Carson's important second book, The Sea Around Us, was published in 1951. Even more than her previous book, it was acclaimed for its approachable writing style. The Sea Around Us provides a layperson's geological guide through time and tide. In this book, Carson explores the mystery and treasures of the hidden world of the oceans, revealing its history and environment to the nonscientists. Carson maps the evolution of planet Earth—the formation of mountains, islands, and oceans—then moves into a more detailed description of the sea, starting with the sea surface and the creatures that live near the surface, descending through the depths to the sea bottom.
The Sea Around Us went to the top of the nonfiction best-seller list in the United States, won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, was selected for the Book of the Month Club, and was condensed for Reader's Digest. It went into nine printings and was translated into thirty-three languages.
Such was the success of The Sea Around Us that it enabled Carson to accept a Guggenheim Fellowship and take a leave of absence from her job to start work on a third book, The Edge of the Sea, published in 1955. Written as a popular guide to the seashore, this book is a study of the ecological relationship between the Atlantic seashore and the animals that inhabit the coastline. While complementing her previous two books, this work evidences the growth of Carson's interest in the interrelationship of Earth's systems.
Rachel Carson's lasting reputation as a force in the environmental movement was made with her fourth and final book, Silent Spring, published in 1962. The title of the book was inspired by a phrase from a John Keats poem—"And no birds sing." Pesticides being sprayed indiscriminately were killing songbirds and thus bringing about the absence of birdsong: a silent spring.
In this book, Carson moves away from her focus on the sea and the land-sea interface to describe the interrelationship between communities and modern agricultural and industrial techniques. The book chronicles the disastrous results evident from the widespread use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and chemical treatments designed to increase agricultural production or simplify the production process.
As an example, Carson describes streams that became chemical soups, laden with the outpourings of chemical treatment plants. She describes runoff from fields treated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, killing algae , plant life, fish, and animals. With this book, Carson educated the general public about the hazards of environmental contamination and made the case for careful consideration of both short-and long-term impacts of human-generated chemical contamination of our waterways.
The arguments contained in Silent Spring were not new. These concerns had been discussed in scientific journals, but Carson's approachable style brought the discussion of environmental management before a much wider general audience. On publication, Silent Spring attracted a great deal of adverse criticism, generated mostly by the chemical industry. More balanced reactions were found in the scientific press.
In 1963, the President's Science Advisory Committee concurred with Carson's assessment of the damage wrought by the widespread use of chemicals and the spiral of contamination that resulted from the development of ever more toxic treatments as insects developed resistance to pesticides. Her writing alerted the country to the dangers of chemical pollution to waters and helped transform water resources management.
Bonta, Marcia Myers. Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1991.
Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
——. The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.
——. Silent Spring. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
——. Under the Sea Wind. New York: Viking Penguin, 1941.
Lear, Linda J. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1972.
The chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, is a synthetic organic compound introduced in the 1940s and used as an insecticide. Its continual build-up in the food chain caused concern for human and animal health. As a result, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, 10 years after the publication of Silent Spring. DDT remains in use in many countries of the world.