Science history: Rachel Carson and the book that changed the world
Biologist was a pioneer of the global environmental movement.
By Jeff Glorfeld
In 1962, American biologist Rachel Carson published her fourth book, Silent Spring.
In April 2012, in an article to mark its 50th anniversary, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) noted that its one-time employee has been “credited with launching the contemporary environmental movement”.
Rachel Louise Carson was born on 27 May 1907, on her family’s Pennsylvania farm. The Encyclopaedia of World Biography says she studied English at the Pennsylvania College for Women, in Pittsburgh, but “changed her major to biology after rediscovering her love for science”.
She later studied creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, earning a master's degree, and completed her postgraduate studies at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.
Her abilities as a writer and scientist led to a part-time job at the then Bureau of Fisheries in 1935. In 1936 she was hired as an aquatic biologist.
She published her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941, and two years later joined the newly created FWS. Her second book, The Sea Around Us, released in 1951, was so successful that she decided to leave public service and write full time. Her third, The Edge of the Sea, was published in 1956.
It was Silent Spring that really made an impact, however, with renowned journalist Bill Moyers writing: “Many credit Carson with inspiring the creation of the Environmental Protection Act, as well as the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, and laying the groundwork for the environmental movement.”
Eight years after her death in 1964 – from cancer at the age of 57 – the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in the US, with some exemptions.
“Many believe Carson and her reputation contributed to this decision, Moyers says, “but, in defending its ruling, the EPA cites substantial scientific evidence of DDT's adverse effects on wildlife and increased insect resistance to the chemical.”
What is without doubt is the huge backlash Carson experienced after the publication of Silent Spring, as Moyers and others acknowledge.
Writing in the New York Times, Clyde Haberman described the “superheated” language Carson’s critics brought to bear against her book, “including descriptions of her as a mass murderer”.
“Carson warned that pesticides like DDT… were being sprayed excessively and indiscriminately in attempts to control crop pests,” Haberman says. “Poisons washed into waterways and moved along the food chain, threatening delicate ecosystems for birds, fish and, ultimately, humans.”
However, he points out, DDT was also used to kill mosquitoes that spread malaria. Although the disease had “essentially been eradicated in the US”, nations such as Africa remained “in its grip”.
Critics – generally, though not exclusively, on the political right – accused Carson of perpetrating junk science, Haberman says. “Some even labelled her one of history’s great villains.”
Moyers says Carson’s book “was not the first time someone sounded the alarm about DDT and other pesticides”. “There were many lawsuits filed in the 1950s by ornithologists and beekeepers about the implications of DDT on wildlife. Still, Carson's work brought these concerns into the public arena as they had never been before.”
Moyers also notes that Carson “did not call for the complete ban of DDT and other pesticides in Silent Spring. She writes, ‘It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I contend … that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself’.”