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Rachel Carson in the sea
Rachel Carson

Literary author and conservationist, Rachel Carson exposed the harmful effects of the pesticide DDT with her book, Silent Spring.

You could call Rachel Carson a scientist. You could call her a writer. Somehow though, neither does the other quite enough justice. From humble beginnings she developed a passion for ecology, rising up to challenge the mighty chemical industry and speaking out against the unmanaged and irresponsible use of pesticides in the US.

Growing up on small family farm near Pennsylvania, Carson had a huge interest in all things literary but especially those containing animals. Not content with simply reading the likes of Beatrix Potter and Herman Melville, Carson wrote many of her own stories, with her first published when she was 11 years old. With great enthusiasm, she excelled at school before moving on to study English at Pennsylvania College for Women, where she promptly switched her major to biology.

First steps in writing

Rachel CarsonFinancial difficulties meant that many academic opportunities passed her by, but she graduated with honours in 1929 and followed this with a Master’s degree in zoology. The passing of her father meant that she was required to support her family, in particular her aging mother, so she took a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. This job once again allowed her to flex her literary muscles, writing copy for a series of weekly educational radio broadcasts aiming to get the public interested in under-water life.

Previous writers had not managed to pique the public interest, but Carson was so successful that her supervisor not only asked her to write the introduction to a public brochure about the Bureau of Fisheries, they also secured her the first full-time position available. She became only the second woman to have a full-time, permanent position at the bureau.

The work she was doing for the bureau on fish populations was an ideal source of information for a stream of newspaper articles, but difficulties hit again in 1937, when Carson’s older sister died, leaving her as sole breadwinner for her mother and two nieces.

From magazines to books

Carson’s big break came shortly after this, when Atlantic Monthly accepted an essay entitled Undersea. Originally she had written this for the Bureau of Fisheries brochure but her supervisor, once again realising her brilliance, told her it was too good for this use. Edward Weeks, the editor of Atlantic Monthly, agreed, describing Carson as having an ability to explain science “in such a way as to fire the imagination of the layman.” The publishing house Simon & Schuster asked her to expand the essay into a full book which became Under the Sea Wind. This was an exciting journey exploring the depths of the ocean floor.

Whilst progressing to chief editor of publications within the bureau and simultaneously writing her second book, Carson had decided that she wanted to work full-time on writing, but was prevented by her financial situation. This second book, which was to become The Sea Around Us, began popping up as chapters in Science Digest, Yale Review and The New Yorker, furthering the adventure that her first book had offered by giving a life history of the ocean. When the complete book was released it won Carson a plethora of awards, two honorary doctorates and the financial security she needed to be able to concentrate full-time on writing.

Shortly after this success, Carson moved to Southport Island, Maine, and met Dorothy Freeman. With her family situation and her commitment to her work, Carson had been very isolated without any other significant relationships until this point. This would become an intense, lasting relationship that whilst limited to letters and the occasional meeting, was the perfect exhibition of devotion, understanding and respect. Freeman’s love of nature was one of many common interests they shared and was the foundation of their bond. The nature of Carson and Freeman’s relationship has been long speculated, but just a brief look at some of the letters they shared clearly shows the love they had for each other and the support Freeman unwaveringly dedicated to Carson throughout the rest of Carson’s life.

Carson’s work in marine biology broadened and she became involved with the Nature Conservancy, addressing some of the planet's environmental issues. However, tragedy struck again when one of her nieces passed away at the age of 31. Carson, once again taking on the responsibility, adopted her child and spent much of 1957 arranging the living situation for them and her mother.

Work on pesticides

Once back in the fray of research, Carson became concerned about the pesticides that had been developed since the Second World War. This topic was to be the focus of her next book. The synthetic pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other compounds had been part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s fire ant eradication programme, and Carson began a four-year journey gathering evidence of environmental damage caused by DDT.

Despite hostile criticism from the chemical industry and other scientists, Carson continued to collect information until 1960 when illness struck. A duodenal ulcer prevented her from undertaking new work for weeks and as she was nearing recovery, she discovered a cyst in her left breast. She undertook a mastectomy but later discovered that the tumour had been malignant and had spread. Despite this, she had gathered enough information and continued writing her ground-breaking book, Silent Spring. On its release, it was attacked ferociously by the chemical industry, but attracted considerable publicity and interest from the public and made pesticide use a national issue – launching one of the first grassroots environmental campaigns.

Testifying her findings before President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee was one of her last public appearances. The committee backed Carson’s claims and Carson was able to help make some recommendations towards Senate policies before her cancer became too widespread.

Enduring legacy

Rachel Carson died on 14 April 1964 of a heart attack. Her legacy is vast and emcompasses not just her work on pesticides, but also on environmentalism generally. She was among the first advocates for responsible use of the environment, and inspired the imaginations of amateur and established scientists all over the US and beyond. To some she may be a scientist. To some she may be a writer. But Rachel Carson should also be remembered as a preserver, a guardian and a hero, who even at her weakest, fought valiantly against what she believed to be wrong.

Words by Gareth Davies
Images © Science Photo Library
Published May 2014

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