A Strong Woman and her Silent Spring Inspired the Environmental Movement

In the summer of 1962, The New Yorker published Silent Spring by Rachel Carson as a serial in three parts. President John F. Kennedy read it, and in August the newly published book became an instant bestseller. Ultimately, the book led a nationwide ban on DDT, sparked a nation’s awareness and interest, and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A strong woman and her Silent Spring inspired the environmental movement.

Portrait photograph of Rachel Carson her book Silent Spring inspired the environmental movement
PUblic Domain

Early Life

Rachel Carson, the third child born to Robert and Maria McLean Carson, was born on May 27, 1907, near the Allegheny River on a farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. She had two passions: nature and writing. Her love of nature she inherited from her mother. As a child, she explored the forests and streams around her 65-acre farm. One of her stories was published by a children’s magazine at 10. At 11, she won her first prize for her story published in St. Nicholas Magazine.

Education

She graduated with honors from high school and won a scholarship to Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University). 

Inspired by her biology teacher, Mary Skinker, Rachel switched her major from English to biology and became one of only three women in the class.

She won a summer scholarship to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Maine.

Rachel graduated magna cum laude in 1929.

After winning a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, she studied Zoology.

She received a master’s degree in zoology from John Hopkins in 1932.

That summer she earned a summer fellowship at the U.S. Marine Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It was her first experience with the ocean.

She continued at John Hopkins working toward a doctorate. However, lack of funds forced her to drop out of graduate school in the spring of 1934.

The US Bureau of Fisheries

Coached by Mary Skinker, Rachel took the Federal Civil Service exams for junior wildlife biologist and junior aquatic biologist in 1935. She was the second woman ever hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries in Washington D.C. Her part-time job was writing radio scripts on marine life.

She became a junior aquatic biologist in 1935.

From 1939 to 1941, the government reorganized the Bureau of Fisheries under the Department of Interior. During the reorganization, they sent Rachel to Chicago.

She spent the summer of 1940 at the Fisheries Station at Woods Hole and sailed on the Bureau’s research ship, the SS Phalanthrop.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Image of a pier through a marsh at Wildlife Refuge 
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Public Domain

They promoted Rachel to Associate Aquatic Biologist, and she moved back to Washington D.C. More promotions followed. She became an Information Specialist for the department, now called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Wartime research includes radar and sea studies.

Accompanied first by FWS artist Shirley Briggs, and later by artist Kay Howe Roberts, Rachel conducts research from 1946 to 1948 at Chincoteague and Parker River Refuges, Mattamuskeet, and Red Rocks Lakes.

She visited the Florida Everglades Refuge and then sailed to the New England Bank aboard the SS Albatross III, a Woods Hole Oceanographic research ship.

Her Writing

She became a freelance writer when she joined the bureau. Her article “Undersea” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1937.

Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was published in 1941. Accord to the FWS, the book highlighted her “unique ability to present deeply intricate scientific material in clear poetic language that could captivate her readers and pique their interest in the natural world.” It was a Scientific Book Club selection, but WWII impacted sales, and it went out of print in 1946.

In July 1944, the Reader’s Digest rejected her proposed article about DDT because it was too “unpleasant.”

In 1952, she won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Sea Around Us (1951). It was on the New York Times Best-seller List for 32 weeks. The book also won a national science writing-prize and a Guggenheim grant.

In 1955, she published The Edge of the Sea.

Personal Life

Her father died a few months after the Bureau of Fisheries hired her. Rachel became the sole provider for the family.

Rachel’s older sister, Marian, died in 1937 at 39. Rachel and her mother took in Marian’s two daughters, Virginia, 12, and Marjorie, 11. They moved to Silver Spring, Maryland.

In 1950, Rachel had a cancerous breast tumor removed. The doctors made no further treatment recommendations.

Rachel retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1951 to write full time.

In 1953, thanks to her book sales, Rachel and her family moved to Southport Island, Maine. There she met Dorothy Freeman https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hp3203-1718-s2-08/dorothy-freeman/, a summer resident, who became a lifelong friend.

After her niece, Marjorie Williams, died in early 1957, Carson adopted Majorie’s son, Roger. They moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, to care for her aging mother.

Rachel’s mother died in 1958.

In 1960, Rachel had a radical mastectomy after her breast cancer returned. They told her her cancer diagnosis meant she had “a matter of months.” 

Inspired the Environmental Movement

Rachel was afraid of dying, but the idea of dying before she could finish the book terrified her.

Her manuscript, Silent Spring,was a warning to the public about the long-term effects of over-use of pesticides.

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.

Rachel Carson, “A Fable for Tomorrow” from Silent Spring.

By early 1961, Rachel had multiple illnesses and multiple surgeries, all related to her cancer.

The history of life on earth has been an interaction between living things and their surroundings.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

She persevered and finished the book. They published Silent Spring in 1962.

Praise and Attacks

President Kennedy mentioned that he’d read Silent Spring, and it became the most talked about book in decades.

CBS interviewed Rachel for a TV special. By this time, she couldn’t stand because her cancer had spread to her spine. She begged CBS not to tell anyone she was sick. CBS kept her secret and “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” aired on April 3, 1963. Millions viewed it.

She testified before Congress. The chemical industry and its allies vilified her with personal and professional attacks.

President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee Report validated Carson’s research, and the government banned DDT.

Writer, scientist, and ecologist, Rachel Carson died on April 14,1964.

Legacy

photograph of a bronze sculpture of Rachel Carson sitting on a bench
photo by Laura A. Macaluso, Ph.D., CC BY-SA 4.0 

Silent Spring inspired the environmental movement and led not only to a nationwide ban on DDT but public awareness and the banning of other pesticides. And it led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Fish and Wildlife Service established the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in 1966 in cooperation with the State of Maine to protect valuable salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds.

They posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

Her homes are national historic landmarks, and various awards bear her name.

In 1995, Freeman’s granddaughter published letters exchanged between Rachel and her best friend, Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964: An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship.

Conclusion

Rachel Carson was a remarkable woman, a strong woman. Silent Spring inspired the environmental movement and generations of people who work to protect the world and all its creatures.

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