Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Rachel Louise Carson: The one who shouted ‘Silent Spring’

Nearly a half-century since Rachel Louise Carson published ‘Silent Spring,’ her impact can be seen in the Environmental Protection Agency, the lack of DDT use, and the modern environmentalist movement.

When Rachel Carson published her seminal environmentalist tome “Silent Spring” in the early 1960s, she wrote of a future when “birds had disappeared and the spring was silent” and hoped that her prediction would be proved wrong.

Over the next several decades, her work did in fact help prove her prediction wrong. Ms. Carson rose from writing radio copy to spark interest in marine life, to testifying in front of Congress to halt the use of harmful pesticides, defying powerful chemical companies and detractors along the way. Her legacy reverberates both in chirping birds heard on a May spring day, as well as a Google Doodle on what would have been her 107th birthday.

Carson was born May 27, 1907 in Springdale, a rural town in western Pennsylvania, on her family’s farm. It was there that she found she had an equal interest in literature and the natural world – reading Herman Melville and Beatrix Potter while wandering the banks of the Allegheny River. She enrolled at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) and first studied English, though later changed her major to biology. From there, she attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins and earned a masters degree in zoology in 1932.

Though she intended to attain her doctorate at Johns Hopkins, her family’s financial difficulties persuaded her to look for employment and she got a temporary research job at the US Bureau of Fisheries where she was charged with writing educational radio copy to inspire interest in marine life. Her superiors quickly realized her knack for weaving hard science and storytelling, and offered her a full-time position with the bureau as a junior biology researcher.

Article continues after advertisement

From there, she began her love affair with the sea, researching field data on fish populations, writing brochures that explained different phenomena, and supplementing her work with science writing for The Baltimore Sun. Her literature was well received, and she began to pursue longer pieces that could bring her fascination with nature to larger audiences. In 1937, she wrote an essay describing the ocean floor called “The World of Waters,” for Atlantic Monthly, which caught the attention of a publisher at Simon & Schuster. They asked her to extend the essay into a book on oceanic life, and four years later her first full-length book, “Under The Sea Wind,” was published.

Carson continued to weave her research and literary life together in increasingly popular and educational books. She published two more books about marine life over the next several years, including “The Sea Around Us” (which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 82 weeks, won a National Book Award, and the Burroughs Medal) and “The Edge of the Sea.” These works also provided the financial and research base necessary for her final, and most influential, book “Silent Spring.”

For “Silent Spring,” Carson spent four years painstakingly researching the US Department of Agriculture’s largely indiscriminate use of pesticides to wipe out insect infestations, which simultaneously wiped out flocks of birds, herds of livestock, and other wildlife around the country. Her research pointed to evidence that the use of DDT and other pesticides ultimately has little effect on long-term control of pests and could have harmful effects on humans.

Though chemical companies and many who had previously trusted federal scientists’ judgments decried her as an “alarmist” and “fanatic,” her message and extensive research quickly took hold. The 1962 book, which ended up on the bestseller list for nearly three years, and Carson’s advocacy to Congress and others sparked the modern day environmentalist movement, contributed to a nearly worldwide ban of DDT, and played a part in the inception of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite these improvements, some of these contributions remain controversial today, including the widespread ban on DDT, which she didn’t anticipate would be carried out with such force.

“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself,” Carson once said.