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.
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