I first read marine biologist Rachel Carson ten years after she had published the book Silent Spring (1962). I had heard about the book because the first Earth Day and environmental concerns and protests were all around me in high school and college. Someone told me that I had to read the book — first serialized in The New Yorker in the summer of 1962 — that made her a name that was widely known.
She was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania in 1907. I was surprised to learn that she was an English major at the Pennsylvania College for Women. In her junior year, she took a biology course and it so fascinated her that she changed her major to zoology.
Silent Spring was not her first book. She was working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and wrote something for a department publication. her boss thought it read it read as more “literary” and suggested that she send it to Atlantic Monthly instead of using it in a government publication. She did and it was published in the magazine in 1937. It also became the starting place for her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941).
Carson continued to work in government jobs until 1952. Eventually, she became editor-in-chief for all the publications of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She resigned in 1952 after publishing two books in order to devote herself fully to her own writing.
She won the National Book Award in nonfiction for her second book, the best-seller The Sea Around Us (1951). In her acceptance speech, she said:
“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science. […] The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
Silent Spring (1962) was the book that really gave her fame and allowed her messages about the environment to gain wider exposure. She opened the book with a little fable. The fable is about a time and place where a spring morning begins silently. No birds singing. No chirping insects. It is an ecosystem destroyed by the widespread misuse of harmful pesticides like DDT.
That opening may have hurt the book in its initial publication because some saw the book as “fiction” based on that fable. But the book was the result of six years of rigorous scientific research. She was also attacked by the chemical industry which had allies within and outside the government. Though today we know her message was accurate and one that needed to be heard and heeded, you can find many critics who attacked her at the time of its publication. There were industry people who claimed that banning pesticides like DDT resulted in “millions of malaria deaths” while not considering the lives and damage that were saved by eliminating these pesticides from the ecosystem and slowly eliminating them from our water, soil, air, wildlife and humans via all those vectors and from our food sources. She wrote. “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”
When President Kennedy read Silent Spring during the summer of 1962, it influenced him. He formed a presidential commission to re-examine the government’s pesticide policy and the commission endorsed Carson’s findings. Rachel’s writing and advocacy boosted public awareness of environmental matters. It helped start a new conservation movement and some say it eventually was part of the reason that the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970. Sadly, Rachel Carson never saw that happen. She died of cancer in 1964, just two years after Silent Spring was published.
The sound of the silent spring is still echoing in our world.