Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907. If she were still alive, she would be 100 years old today.
Many claim her as founding the modern environment movement. Her work also had a direct influence on government. The US Congress went on to pass the National Environmental Policy Act, establish the Environmental Protection Agency, and ban DDT based on her activism.
Before Rachel Carson became an activist she was a writer.
She was just 10-years-old when her first story was published in a children’s literary magazine. She read widely, including the English Romantics, and was influenced by their belief in the concept of “the balance of nature” and “pristine wilderness”.
A zoology professor urged her to major in biology rather than English at Pennsylvania College for Women, today known as Chatham College. She was later to say that science, in particular marine biology, also gave her “something to write about”.
She never married, or completed the PhD she began at John Hopkins University in marine biology. Her first job was as a junior aquatic biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries where she was soon moved into communications and within 10 years was editor-in-chief of all the agency’s publications.
In 1951, still at the Bureau, her second book the The Sea Around Us was published and she became an overnight literary celebrity when it was serialised by the New York Times.
Her fourth book, Silent Spring, published in 1962 was also serialised by the newspaper. It combined Rachel Carson’s passion for writing and nature, with her growing hatred of industrialisation. The book was written to alert the American public to the environmental and human dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides and it also captured the imagination of President John F. Kennedy.
The book became a best seller.
In the same way people like Al Gore and Tim Flannery are today warning of a climate crisis, as far back as 1945 the Reader’s Digest was publishing Rachel Carson warning of the dangers of pesticides, particularly DDT. She wrote that the pollution of the environment through ignorance and greed was the ultimate act of human arrogance. She turned the widespread use of DDT into a moral issue in the same way Al Gore has turned global warming into a moral issue, including for the US government.
Like Al Gore, Rachel Carson gave testimony before congress. She claimed that public opinion was being ignored and government must take responsibility for the damage from the widespread use of toxic chemicals. At that time the Senate Committee on Commerce was hearing testimony on the Chemical Pesticides Coordination Act which would require labels to tell how to avert damage to fish and wildlife.
She had no institutional affiliation and had no scientific publications in the area of chemical toxicology but she galvinised public and government support for more controls on the use of chemicals.
Rachel Carson died of breast cancer on April 14, 1964, aged just 56, and before much of her work had its real impact. In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the highest civilian honour in the USA, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The same year Time Magazine published a feature entitled “The Poisoning of America” claiming that “Of all of man’s interventions in the natural order, none is accelerating quite so alarmingly as the creation of chemical compounds”.
Recently, with the approach of the centenary of Rachel Carson’s birth, US Senate Democrats planned a resolution to honour her legacy, but Republican Senator Tom Coburn, a practising Doctor and campaigner for the use of DDT in the fight against malaria in Africa, scuttled this.
The senator has said that Rachel Carson used junk science and that her “warnings about environmental damage have put a stigma on potentially lifesaving pesticides" like DDT.
In 1962, the same year that Silent Spring was published, Carlos Alvarado and L.J. Bruce-Chwatt* in Scientific American wrote of the hopeful outlook for the control of malaria, that during the last 15 years “modern methods” have cut the number of cases of malaria worldwide from 350 million to less than 100 million with complete eradication achieved in several areas including the USA. At that time the World Health Organization was aiming for the total eradication of the disease from the whole human population.
But Rachel Carson’s campaign cut across this effort. She advocated that mankind seek to live in harmony with “Mother Nature” rather than to seek to conquer her.
Had Rachel Carson been less successful, had her books and her activism resulted in the introduction of more controls on agricultural chemicals, without the complete banning of DDT in the US, her ultimate legacy may have been a better one.
* Malaria, by Alvarado and Bruce-Chwatt is in a special anthology of Scientific American articles entitled The Insects selected and introduced by Thomas Eisner and Edward Wilson published by W.H. Freeman and Company, 1977.