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Rachel Carson 1907-64

Rachel Carson is, to many people, the founder of the contemporary environmental movement. After graduating from the Pennsylvania College for Women, in 1929, Rachel Carson studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory and gained an MA in Zoology from John Hopkins University in 1932. Her writing talents then saw Carson hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, to write radio scripts, and simultaneously by the Baltimore Sun as a feature writer on natural history.

In 1936 her career took her more firmly into US Federal service for whom she worked as a scientist and editor. By the time she left 15 years later Rachel Carson had become Editor-in-Chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the same time as she was writing and editing in her day job Ms Carson wrote articles and books. Her book Under the Sea-Wind was published in 1941 and in 1952 she published The Sea Around Us – a tour de force of a science book that became a best seller. The success of The Sea Around Us, which won the USA’s 1951 National Book Award for non-fiction changed Rachel Carson’s life. She resigned from her job in 1952 so that she could spend her time writing and, in 1955, published The Edge of the Sea. The two books are described by her website as a biography of the ocean and Rachel Carson was now famous as a scientist, writer and naturalist that the public could relate to. She continued to write articles on the sea which also highlighted how humankind altered and diminished nature.

However Rachel Carson had been born into rural community and had never lost the love of nature that she learnt at her mother’s knee. She knew the damage that synthetic chemical pesticides could do to both flora and fauna and became increasingly disturbed by the increasing, indeed profligate, use of such pesticides and of DDT in particular. In 1962 she published Silent Spring, perhaps the most important book ever written about the environment. The book, first published in instalments in the New Yorker magazine concluded that DDT and other pesticides killed insects, birds, animals and had contaminated the entire world food chain. The chapter ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’ depicted a town in the not too distant future where all life had been silenced by the effects of DDT. Rachel Carson was subject to a litany of attacks, much of it personal, from the worldwide chemical industry which sought to doubt not only Rachel Carson’s science but also her sanity.

Her attackers had underestimated Rachel Carson whose science was impeccable and who had tested her work on many experts before publication. The Natural Resources Defense Council in the USA reports how eminent scientists ‘rose to her defense’ and that when President Kennedy ordered the President’s Science Advisory Committee to examine the issues the book raised ‘its report thoroughly vindicated both Silent Spring and its author’.

Silent Spring led to the eventual banning of DDT and other pesticides but Rachel Carson recognised that it was but one part of humankind’s careless assault on the environment. Before its publication the issues of conservation was a minority interest but Silent Spring made environmental protection a mainstream issue. Because of Rachel Carson people became aware that unregulated technological progress too often meant contamination of the food chain, the extinction of species and landscapes and genetic damage and cancers in humans as well as in wildlife.

Rachel Carson died, aged 56, of breast cancer in 1964. Her time on this earth was short but she became the mother of the environmental movement.

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    Rachel Carson at a microscope
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    Rachel Carson
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    Rachel Carson. Credit: Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
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    Rachel Carson, in the woods near her home in 1962. Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt