Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in rural Springdale, Pennsylvania. In 1929 she graduated from the Pennsylvania College for Women with a BA in biology, and three years later she earned an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. Carson subsequently spent a few years teaching zoology at both Hopkins and the University of Maryland, while she was also enrolled in a doctoral program at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. She was unable to fulfill her Ph.D. requirements, however, due to the familial obligations of caring for several needy relatives.
In 1936 Carson received a full-time appointment as a junior aquatic biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, which in 1940 was renamed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). She stayed with FWS until 1952, spending her last three years there as editor-in-chief of the Service’s publications. Carson 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, which explored the lives of three different sea-dwelling creatures. In the several years that followed, she was promoted to the positions of information specialist and editor-in-chief at FWS, where she wrote pamphlets on conservation and edited scientific articles. With the publication of her 1951 book, The Sea Around Us, which won a National Book Award in 1952 and spent 86 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, Carson became a household name as a naturalist and science writer. The overwhelming success and profitability of this book enabled Carson to resign from FWS in 1951 and write full-time. In 1955 Carson published another best-seller, The Edge of the Sea.
In 1962 Carson published the book for which she is best known, 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. This best-selling book induced a wave of anti-pesticide hysteria, and the author soon became a cause célèbre. For instance, she was the star witness at two congressional hearings on pesticide-related issues in June 1963. And because of her book, anti-DDT sentiment grew so strong that the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 banned its use in the United States and in any nation receiving American foreign aid.
So great was the impact of Carson’s book, that FSW credits it with “launching the contemporary environmental movement.” Al Gore, who cites Carson as the original inspiration for his own environmental activism, concurs that “without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.” Indeed, the book helped to advance the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (both 1972), and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). By the late 1960s and early ’70s, Silent Spring was required reading in high schools across the United States.
In her research for Silent Spring, Carson consulted with Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Herman J. Muller, and her book contained several references to Muller’s academic work on radiation. Notably, however, Carson did not mention that: (a) Muller was an anti-American communist whose radiation-related writings were highly biased and were intended to provide scholarly justification for the dismantling of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal; (b) Muller had once been a faculty adviser to the National Student League (NSL), a communist organization whose members pledged to “not support the government of the United States in any war it may conduct”; (c) Muller had helped sponsor and edit the NSL’s publication, Spark, which was named after Vladimir Lenin’s newspaper, Iskra (Russian for “Spark”); and (d) so deeply did Muller despise America, that he moved to Nazi Germany in 1932 and then eventually to the Soviet Union.
Carson was also influenced by the work of:
Carson viewed ecology as a scientific platform from which political activists could launch a radical assault on the very notion that human beings had a right to exercise dominion over the natural world. And she depicted capitalism’s allegedly reckless pursuit of the almighty dollar as a major cause of human oppression and environmental destruction: “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry, monstrous evils have arisen.”
Noting that that “the struggle against the massed might of industry is too big for one or two individuals … to handle,” Carson envisioned the formation of a global environmental movement committed to combating the evils of modern development. Quoting directly from Marx’s Laws of Matter in a television interview, she stated that “man’s endeavors to control nature by his powers to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself, a war he would lose unless he came to terms with nature.”
Within a year after its original release, Silent Spring had been published in 15 countries worldwide. By October 1987, it had sold nearly 2 million copies.
In the years since its publication, the claims made in Silent Spring have been largely discredited by scientists. As the American Thinker reports: “[S]erious scientific analysis of Carson’s claims overthrew virtually all of [those claims]. DDT did not cause cancer. It had no health effects whatsoever on humans, mammals, or any other higher animals.” For a lengthy list of the factual errors contained in Silent Spring, click here.
Notwithstanding its many inaccuracies and falsehoods, the impact of Silent Spring was monumental, its effects disastrous. Most notably, it led to the DDT ban, which in turn led to the malaria-related deaths of millions of African children. For an in-depth look at the ramifications that Carson’s book had vis-a-vis environmental policy and public health, click here.
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.
For additional information about Rachel Carson and her work, click here.
Further Reading: “Rachel Carson” (Britannica.com); “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson” (The New Yorker, 3-26-2018); Timeline of Rachel Carson’s Life (RachelCarson.org); “Books By Rachel Carson” (RachelCarson.org); “Silent Alarmism” (National Review, 5-31-2007); “Rachel Carson’s Statement before Congress: 1963” (6-4-1963); “Power in the Pen” (Rachel Carson’s biography, by PopHistoryDig.com); “The Lies of Rachel Carson” (by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards).