Rachel Carson, nature-lover, writer and biologist, is considered by many to be one of the most influential individuals the environmental movement and the nation as a whole have known. Though considered a quiet, independent woman by most standards, her writing spoke loudly on behalf of the health of the environment and created a storm of controversy that succeeded in inspiring many citizens to pay attention to the human effect on the natural world.
Today Carson is most well known for her thought provoking book Silent Spring, the piece that shook the foundation of successful chemical companies specializing in the use of the synthetic pesticide known as DDT and served as a call to arms for those concerned about their personal health and that of the world around them. Silent Spring is now on the "must-read" list for anyone interested in environmental or social justice issues. Not only did Carson take a risk by speaking out against financially and politically powerful entities, she took a risk in speaking out as a woman at a time in the mid-twentieth century when educational and professional employment opportunities were harder for women to find. Fortunately, despite rough waters Carson's work was recognized as valid and important, and DDT was eventually banned in the United States.
It is hard to see Carson as an individual with a history outside of Silent Spring's success and renown, though the book was the last of her creations and was published only two years before her death. The more elusive Carson, before controversial recognition made her a famed hero to the environmental movement, was a scientist, loving daughter, sister, aunt, dedicated writer and observer of the detailed natural world around her.
Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in the rural town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Though poor by financial standards, her family was rich in natural surroundings. Carson spent her childhood as the youngest of three children in a humble farmhouse surrounded by an apple orchard, woodlands and acres of farmland. Inspired by a ripe setting and her mother's passion for all things wild and natural, Carson's love for the world of the outdoors began at an early age and was fostered throughout her upbringing.
Her parents encouraged her to play outside the house, read child-oriented nature books and live with respect for the natural world. Supposedly Carson's mother would not allow her children to kill insects trapped inside; they had to be rescued and set free outside of the house. In her mother it seems Carson found a kindred spirit, and the two would remain very close until her mother's death, living together in the same home for most of that time.
Carson excelled at writing throughout her youth, her first piece having been published at age ten in the children's magazine St. Nicholas. After high school she enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women (currently Chatham College) in 1925 to pursue higher education. Early in her college career, an influential teacher exposed Carson to the intricacies of the natural world through the study of ecology, inspiring her to combine her love of writing with a formal degree in marine biology.
She graduated with honors in 1929 and spent the following summer studying at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. Using scholarship money to continue her education she was then accepted to a graduate level program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and enrolled this time to study zoology. In 1932 Carson graduated from Johns Hopkins with a Master of Science. From this point on, in her work and private life, Carson would continue to combine her talent for writing with the study of science and nature.
Despite the fact that her childhood was spent in the fields and woods of rural Pennsylvania, as an adult Carson's interests turned towards the wonders found on the shores of the sea and in the waters of the ocean.
"The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the senses of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life. Each time that I enter it, I gain some new awareness of its beauty and its deeper meanings, sensing that intricate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surroundings..."
- Rachel Carson (The Edge of the Sea)
Several years after graduating from graduate school, Carson applied for a full time job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Washington D.C. Her job as an aquatic biologist included writing and editing government publications, and eventually, throughout a fifteen year career, she succeeded in rising to the level of Editor-in-Chief.
On July 6, 1935, her father passed away, leaving Carson with the responsibility of caring for her mother and a recently-divorced sister with two daughters. Carson had to rise to the occasion of becoming the family's primary bread-winner. Luckily her career with the Bureau of Fisheries provided her with a steady income and formal setting in which she could tend to both of her passions, writing and the study of nature, while seeing to her family's needs as well.
In 1937, Carson submitted an article titled "Undersea" to the well-known publication The Atlantic Monthly and was rewarded with enthusiasm from readers and editors in the field. Quincy Howe, the editor-in-chief of the influential publishing company Simon and Schuster, took notice as well. Howe would play an instrumental role in encouraging Carson to write her first full-length book, Under the Sea Wind.
Through her writing Carson now wanted to make the ocean world accessible to those not versed in the language of the sciences. She wrote of the beauty and wonder of the sea and its inhabitants, creating characters that would attract readers to this mysterious and vastly unexplored component of earth. Though many associate wilderness with soaring peaks, roaring rivers, deep canyons and tall trees, Carson's wilderness came in the form of deep, dark waters, foaming waves and the swimming, diving creatures within.
Despite the book's potential and the passion behind its writing, Under the Sea Wind was released in November of 1941, only a few weeks prior to the United States' entry into World War II. Sadly, although several prominent members of the scientific community did pay attention to the publication, the book sold less than 1600 copies as the nation's eyes and interests turned towards the war efforts and away from the ocean wilderness Carson cared so much for.
Strong still in spirit, Carson returned to her work only to begin thinking of ideas for her next book. This time she wanted to move away from the sentimentality in the pages of Under the Sea Wind. Her plans called for something more in-depth pertaining to the studies of marine biology and its current scientific advances. Eleven years following her first book attempt, The Sea Around Us was published in 1952 and shortly after, in 1955, her third book, The Edge of the Sea followed. In contrast to her earlier writing, The Sea Around Us was awarded with the National Book Award, and within the same year Carson was honored with a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Well respected now as a scientist and naturalist, she retired from government work to write, living for the first time on an income earned solely from her creative works.
Throughout the decades after the war, Carson's life was filled with mixed blessings. Her books had brought her recognition and success, while her home life was continuously filled with hardship. In 1957, her niece Marjorie passed away. After Carson's sister's death several years earlier, she had taken Marjorie in and played a large role in raising her and subsequently Marjorie's son Roger. Marjorie's death meant that Carson alone now shouldered the responsibility of raising a five-year-old boy and caring for her own elderly mother. In December of 1958 her mother passed away as well, and a year later Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Even during hard times Carson was not one to forget the beauty and importance of the natural world around her. The years following the war had brought hardship to the land as the government condoned widespread pesticide use throughout the country. A resident of Duxbury, Massachusetts, Olga Huskins, contacted Carson in 1958 to ask her for help with contacting officials in Washington D.C. about the use of DDT in the New England area. Though Carson's concerns about pesticide use had already been growing, the knowledge that others were aware of the dangers of pesticides inspired her to turn away from her beloved sea to write a book concerning the damaging effects of these harsh chemicals. That year, prior to her mother's death and the diagnosis of her breast cancer, she formally began work on Silent Spring. In 1962 after writing through worsening illness and surviving a mastectomy, the book was published and Silent Spring began to leave its mark on the world.
"Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties of the earth are never alone or weary in life ... Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts." - Rachel Carson
After Silent Spring was published, Carson was vengefully attacked by the large chemical companies that had interest in continuing their prolific use of pesticides, especially DDT. Carson never strayed from her conviction and belief that the widespread use of pesticides was killing humans and nature alike. She stood by her writing, surviving constant barrages from the media and corporate chemical companies for two years following publication. In the spring of 1964, at the age of fifty-six, Carson passed away at her home in Maine, succumbing to cancer, one of the illnesses she had warned others so much about.
The past several years have included landmark anniversaries in reference to Carson's life and work. The 2002 year marked the fortieth anniversary of the release of Silent Spring, for which then Vice President Al Gore contributed a new introduction. Two years later in 2004, came the fortieth anniversary of Carson's death and this year, 2007, signifies the 100th anniversary of Carson's birth in Pennsylvania.
Carson's legacy lives on through her writing and emphasizes the importance not only of the health of wilderness and wild lands, but of all life on the planet. She is still a wise and powerful advocate for all of those hoping to live in conjunction with the mountains, the seas and all the land in-between.
A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. PBS. (1998). Rachel Carson.
Lear, Linda. (1998). Rachel Carson's Biography.
Rachel Carson Homestead Association
Stewart, Frank. (1995). A Natural History of Nature Writing. Washington D.C.: Island Press.
Weiss, Don. (2003). Rachel Carson: A Brief Biography.