Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

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Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
MSA SC 3520-13561

Biography:

"...I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.
-Rachel Carson1

Rachel Carson, known today as the mother of the environmentalist movement, was a biologist and author who raised public awareness about the harmful effects of pesticides in the environment. Particularly, her book Silent Spring pointed out the specific dangers of the pesticide DDT in plants and animals, and launched a national debate over the safety of manufactured chemicals on the environment and the human population. And, while her book led to the banning of DDT in agriculture, Carson's true legacy was getting people to care about the world they lived in. Described as a naturalist, Carson's true objective in the books she wrote was to help people see the beauty in nature that she witnessed everyday. Through this appreciation, she inspired the nation to help protect the world in which humanity was a part of.

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, to Robert Warden Carson and Maria McLean.2 She was raised in Springdale and nearby Parnassus on a farm, where she spent hours exploring the outdoors with her mother and siblings.3,4 Carson had grown up loving books, and by the time she was ten she knew she wanted to become a writer.5 Her first publication was a short story in the children's magazine St. Nicholas Magazine in 1918.6

After graduating from Parnassus High School, Carson enrolled at Pennsylvania College for Women at Pittsburgh, initially majoring in English Composition.7 However, a required biology course in her junior year motivated her to change her major to zoology.8 After completing her bachelor's degree, Carson went on to Woods Hole Laboratory in Massachusetts to study marine biology while also attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University.9 She graduated in 1932 from Johns Hopkins with her master's in zoology.10

During her time at Johns Hopkins, Carson taught summer school at her university, and in 1931 she became a member of the zoology staff at the University of Maryland.11 She taught at the college level for a few more years until her father passed away suddenly in 1935.12 Needing to find regular work to support her family, Carson passed the federal civil service test in 1936 and moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the Federal Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) as a writer.13 Carson researched and wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources as well as edited scientific articles.14 Carson also wrote radio scripts for the bureau's radio show, "Romance Under the Seas," but soon found the pay was too slim to support her and her family.15 So, she took a job at The Baltimore Sun as a supplementary writer.

Carson wrote mainly science related articles for The Sun. Her coverage included topics from the shad spawning season to the Baltimore Outdoors Convention.16 She also included more complex articles, from invasive species pushing out native species of the Chesapeake Bay region, to aquaculture farming.17 She used the byline R.L. Carson because she knew women were not taken seriously in the field of science except as secretaries.18 At nights and on the weekends, Carson combined her love of writing and science, particularly her passion for all subjects ocean-related, into composing a book, Under the Sea Wind, which she published in 1941.19 Her first attempt went relatively unnoticed, and it would take ten years for her second book to be published.20

Carson continued working at the Federal Bureau of Fisheries throughout the 1940s, but during the postwar years she began to warn U.S. officials about the long-term side effects of misusing synthetic chemical pesticides in agriculture.21 Her concern came from the use of DDT, one of the earliest pesticides used in agriculture. At this time, she also began work on her second book, The Sea Around Us, which she published in 1952.22 This book became a huge hit. It was on the bestseller list for one and a half years, translated into thirty languages, and won the 1952 National Book Award.23 It allowed Carson to retire from her job and spend full-time writing.24

After purchasing a summer cottage in Maine, Carson got to work on her next book. In 1955 she published The Edge of the Sea.25 To gain experience for the book, she sailed in a fishing trawler to George's Banks off the coast of Massachusetts.26 In 1957, tragedy struck the Carson family when Rachel's niece passed away, leaving her five-year-old boy parentless.27 Carson adopted her grand-nephew, Roger Christie, and had a house built in Silver Spring, Maryland for the two of them.28 Ever the nature-lover, Carson had builders place a mirror over the kitchen sink so she could watch the birds while doing the dishes.29

Over the next several years, Carson would focus her next book on the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment, a concern she had raised years before. Her efforts culminated in the publication of Silent Spring (1962), the book for which her name is so well-known.30 The book, which mixed science with the elegant prose Carson had become known for, set off a nationally publicized debate over the risks of pesticide use. Defending her stance on the issue, Carson appeared on the CBS Reports television program titled, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.31 She first attempted to clear her name from pesticide companies who had attempted to vilify Carson by arguing that she supported a complete ban on pesticide use. Carson spoke: "We must have insect control. I do not favor turning nature over to insects. I favor the sparing, selective and intelligent use of chemicals. It is the indiscriminate, blanket spraying that I oppose."32 Public favor overwhelmingly fell to Carson. As the face of the new environmentalist movement, Carson testified on several occasions for the U.S. Senate in 1963.33

Carson's leadership in this new field would be short-lived. For several years, she had battled breast cancer, and in 1960 even underwent a radical mastectomy.34 She passed away in April of 1964 at her home in Silver Spring from the cancer; she was only 56 years old.35 As influential and prominent as Carson had become, people who knew her remembered her for her, "shyness and reserve as well as her scholarship and writing."36 In fact, the first time she was asked to speak in public, she was so frightened by the thought that she had to ask her publicist what she should do. Her publicist encouraged Carson not to speak, to focus on her writing, but Carson went ahead and did it anyway. She was scared to death, but made it through the talk.37

Carson's books (she wrote several more than the ones mentioned) won her multiple awards throughout her life, including:
    -The Book Award of the Letters Committee of the National Council of Women of the United States
    -Silver Medal from the Limited Editions Club
    -The Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society,
    -The John Burroughs Medal
    -Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia38,39,40
In addition to these awards, Carson was presented with the Achievement Award of the American Association of University Women (1956), was elected a member of the Distinguished Americans of the National Institutes of Arts and Letters (1953), and received a Guggenheim fellowship to study the ecology of the sea coast in 1951.41,42,43

Rachel Carson was a revolutionizing figure in the environmentalist movement. Her love of nature in all of its forms translated into the books she wrote with such eloquence and sincerity that readers had no choice but to listen and follow along. Her life, although unfairly cut short, was full of wonder for the world around her, and her legacy will be immortalized in the writings she composed for generations to come.

"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 (from Sense of Wonder)44



Written by Archival Intern Emily J. Steedman, B.A. History, A.A. Liberal Arts & Sciences
 

See also:
http://www.rachelcarson.org
 

ENDNOTES:
1. "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer; 'Silent Spring' Author Was 56," New York Times, April 15, 1964,
    ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
2. Ibid. Return to text
3. Ibid. Return to text
4. "A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Rachel Carson," PBS,
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/btcars.html (Accessed August 8, 2011).
    Return to text
5. Ibid. Return to text
6. "Rachel Carson: Timeline," http://www.rachelcarson.org/pages/timeline.aspx
    (Accessed August 8, 2011). Return to text
7. "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer," New York Times. Return to text
8. Peter Matthiessen, "Environmentalist RACHEL CARSON," TIME Magazine,
    http://www.time.com/printout/0,8816,990622,00.html (Accessed August 8, 2011).
    Return to text
9. "Rachel Carson: Timeline." Return to text
10. Peter Matthiessen, "Environmentalist RACHEL CARSON." Return to text
11. "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer," New York Times. Return to text
12. Peter Matthiessen, "Environmentalist RACHEL CARSON." Return to text
13. "Love, dread drove Carson." The Baltimore Sun, 22 April 2007.
    Return to text
14. Stephe Furness, "Carson play mixes poetry and science," Daily Times (Salisbury, MD), August
    23, 2007, Lexis Research System. Return to text
15. "Love, dread drove Carson," Baltimore Sun. Return to text
16. Ibid. Return to text
17. Ibid. Return to text
18. Ibid. Return to text
19. Ibid. Return to text
20. Ibid. Return to text
21. Stephen Furness, "Carson play mixes poetry and science." Return to text
22. "Love, dread drove Carson," Baltimore Sun. Return to text
23. Ibid. Return to text
24. Ibid. Return to text
25. Ibid. Return to text
26. "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer," New York Times. Return to text
27. "Rachel Carson: Timeline." Return to text
28. "Love, dread drove Carson," Baltimore Sun. Return to text
29. Ibid. Return to text
30. "Rachel Carson: Timeline." Return to text
31. "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer," New York Times. Return to text
32. Ibid. Return to text
33. Rachel Carson: Timeline." Return to text
34. Ibid. Return to text
35. Ibid. Return to text
36. "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer," New York Times. Return to text
37. Ibid. Return to text
38. "Rachel Carson Award," Baltimore Sun, December 2, 1956, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
    Return to text
39. "Club Honors Ten American Authors," Baltimore Sun, May 12, 1954, ProQuest Historical
    Newspapers. Return to text
40. "Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer," New York Times. Return to text
41. Eileen Summers, "Rachel Carson Is Honored" Washington Post and Times Herald June 23, 1956
    ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
42. "TEN ARE ELECTED TO ARTS INSTITUTE: Authors, Critics, Sculptors, Painters and
    a Theologian Bring Membership to 245," New York Times, February 19, 1953, ProQuest
    Historical Newspapers. Return to text
43. "MARYLANDERS WIN GUGGENHEIM FUNDS: Fellowships To Miss Carson, Drs. Maxwell
    And Skutch," Baltimore Sun, April 16, 1951, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Return to text
44. "A Science Odyssey," PBS. Return to text
 

Return to Rachel Carson's Introductory Page
 


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