Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was an accomplished and courageous biologist, author and conservationist who can be largely accredited in leading the movement against harmful pesticide use and highlighting the many dangers man-made chemicals pose to the environment.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction” – Rachel Carson
Carson was passionate about the natural world from a young age, growing up surrounded by nature on a farm and applying this to her studies at the Pennsylvania College for Women. Then, she studied at the oceanographic institute at Woods Hole, Massachusetts before obtaining a masters in Zoology at Johns Hopkins University. She went onto become the second woman to ever be hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries and eventually became editor-in-chief for all US Fish and Wildlife service publications. During this time, as a keen marine biologist, she also published several best-selling books on aquatic life and the beauty of the natural world that were so successful she received national awards and the Guggenheim grant, allowing her to retire from the government in 1952 and focus on her writing.
“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself” – Rachel Carson
After leaving the government, Carson was inspired to write about the alarming effects of the use of chemical pesticides that had increased significantly in the US following the second world war. The agriculture sector argued these pesticides were essential for producing a sufficient amount of food, but even over a short period, the negative impact they were having on ecosystems had already become evident to an accomplished ecologist such as Carson. This led to her controversial but ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, in 1962.
The book mostly focused on the use of the pesticide DDT by the agriculture industry on ecosystems but also spoke out on the use of man-made chemicals damaging the environment and being detrimental to human health, linking them to developments of cancer. Carson was courageous and challenged the US government, chemical production companies and agriculture scientists of the time as well as the general disregard mankind was showing to the natural world.
Despite Carson having an extensive education, a 15-year long government career in science and being a best-selling author on the subject, as a woman, her challenges to large influential organisations was still met with animosity and she was accused of being ‘hysterical’. The Secretary of Agriculture for the US even wrote to the President with accusations she was a communist, asking why a ‘spinster was so worried about genetics’. Even her use of language when talking about the environment – terms such as ‘nature’ and the ‘natural world,’ – was used to attack her arguments as being ’emotional and inaccurate outbursts’.
However, despite these personal attacks, Carson’s dedication to teaching about the beauty in the natural world and our responsibility in protecting it could not be ignored. Carson sadly died of breast cancer in 1964 before the real long-term implications of her work could be seen, but by her death already 1 million copies of the book had been sold and people were taking notice of their responsibility to the environment. In 1972 the use of DDT was banned. Organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the US Environmental Protection Agency trace their origins directly to Silent Spring’s publication.
Carson’s courage in challenging the US government helped catalyse the environmental movement, and challenged the stigmas around being a female scientist. The significance of her work was recognised in 1980 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, though this took almost two decades since her death. Carson’s message about our impact on the environment remains very relevant and a huge concern, as do the personal attacks her challenges were met with, but her legacy remains inspiring and an example of the power of one woman’s voice to inflict important changes across the world.
By Natasha Murray, Dead Inspiring volunteer