- Author of Silent Spring
- Founder of the modern environmental movement
- Key player in bringing about the 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT
- Inspired Al Gore’s environmental activism
The founder of the modern environmental movement in America, Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907. The youngest of three children, she grew up in a small farmhouse in rural Springdale, Pennsylvania. In 1929 Carson graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) with a BA in biology, and three years later received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. For a few years she taught zoology at both Hopkins and the University of Maryland while also continuing her studies at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. However, she was unable to finish her Ph.D. due to "familial obligations."
In 1936 Carson received a full-time appointment as a junior aquatic biologist with the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish and Wildlife Service). She also wrote natural history features, focusing mainly on marine zoology, for the Baltimore Sun.
In 1941 Carson published her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. Five years later she was promoted to the position of information specialist, where she wrote pamphlets on conservation and edited scientific articles. In 1949 she became editor-in-chief for all Bureau of Fisheries publications. With the publication of her next two books, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, Carson became a household name as a naturalist and science writer.
With the overwhelming success of her books, Carson in 1952 retired from the government to write full time. The constant thread running through Carson's writings is the belief that mankind's use of pesticides has tremendous power to "irreversibly" alter the natural world. She wrote: "Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called 'insecticides' but ‘biocides.’”
In 1962 Carson published Silent Spring, a manifesto warning about the deadly effects of DDT on plant and animal life, claiming that the pesticide caused cancer, genetic defects, and damage to the world's food supply. Carson's best-selling tome induced a manic wave of anti-pesticide hysteria and the author soon became a cause célèbre. She was the star witness at several Congressional hearings on the subject. Because of her book, anti-DDT sentiment grew so strong that the Environmental Protection Agency banned its use in the United States and in any nation receiving American foreign aid.
"Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all," says Al Gore, who credits Carson for inspiring his own environmental activism.
Today, however, the claims made in Silent Spring are largely dismissed by scientists. Todd Seavey of the American Council on Health and Science has noted: "No DDT-related human fatalities or chronic illnesses have ever been recorded, even among the DDT-soaked workers in anti-malarial programs or among prisoners who were fed DDT as volunteer test subjects — let alone among the 600 million to 1 billion who lived in repeatedly-sprayed dwellings at the height of the substance's use. The only recorded cases of DDT poisoning were from massive accidental or suicidal ingestions, and even in these cases, it was probably the kerosene solvent rather than the DDT itself that caused illness. Reports of injury to birds could not be verified, even when one researcher force-fed DDT-laced worms to baby robins. Reports of fish kills have been greatly exaggerated, resulting from faulty data or aberrant, massive spills or overuse of the chemical that do not hint at a general danger in its use."
Notwithstanding the new evidence, many of Carson's most devoted disciples remain committed to her theories. Among her most ardent supporters, in addition to Al Gore, are Teresa Heinz Kerry, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Howard Heinz Endowment.
Some groups, such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, have made allowances for the new evidence and have changed their position from demanding a worldwide DDT ban, to now consenting to its limited use.
The impact of Carson's work has been monumental, its effects disastrous. It led to the DDT ban, which in turn led to the deaths of millions of Africans (mostly young children) killed by diseases such as malaria that DDT could have prevented.
For an in-depth look at Silent Spring's mistaken assertions about DDT, and an analysis of the disastrous ramifications Carson's book had in terms of environmental policy, see "Malaria Victims: How the Environmental Left's Ban on DDT Caused 50 Million People to Die Needlessly."
Rachel Carson died at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland on April 14, 1964 after a long battle with breast cancer.
She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter in 1980.