“Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazards to ourselves,” Rachel Carson testified before the Senate Government Operations subcommittee against pesticide use. Many from the baby boomer generation can recount tales of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane): laughing and chasing the trucks as they sprayed the colorless and tasteless powder into their faces–a common scene throughout the 40s and 50s. DDT is a colorless, crystalline, tasteless and almost odorless organochlorine known for its insecticidal properties and environmental impacts. In its day, DDT was lauded as heroic, “the atomic bomb of pesticides,” preventing the woes of malaria, bed bugs, and agricultural pests.
Rachel Carson’s research led to an understanding of the effect of anthropogenic choices on the ecosystem, and earned her the title of the “mother of modern ecology and the modern environmental movement.” She singlehandedly changed public views of the once wonder chemical, and in turn, the way we view our place in the ecosystem. In 1962, she translated the research on the deleterious effects of DDT into publicly accessible information, published in her book, Silent Spring. Her research, the book, and testimony would end DDT use by 1972. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1964 nine years before the US government banned DDT. Her work and advocacy sparked the movement leading to grassroots environmentalism, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and growing global acceptance of mankind’s impact and interaction with the environment.
In 1907, Carson was born in rural Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh. Awed by nature and her family farm, she would often create new worlds with pen and paper. First published at age 10 in St. Nicholas Magazine, she continued pursuing a literary career through her early education. After initially studying English and composition at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College), she gravitated to another interest, biology. In 1932, Carson graduated from The Johns Hopkins University with a master’s degree in Marine Biology, focusing on fish development and coastal habitats. She worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and wrote freelance articles for magazines and newspapers.
At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she developed pamphlets and brochures, eventually becoming their Chief Editor of Publications. By 1951, she published The Sea Around Us, a bestseller and US National Book Award winner. The book’s success prompted a trilogy series (Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea), bringing the marvel of the ocean ecosystems to the general public. The trilogy proceeds provided the financial security to leave her post in 1952, and instead focus on personal research and writing. Following plummeting fish and wildfowl populations along the coasts, she combined research on pesticides and the bioaccumulation as they make their way up the food chain, eventually to humans. This work culminated in her best known book, Silent Spring.
Her message of our contamination of the environment with harmful substances ignited generations of conservationists to take up her call. Always with humility and great tenacity, Rachel Carson would testify before the U.S. Congress about her meticulous research, while undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer. A fighter and a trailblazer, she endured criticism and ridicule as a woman and a scientist, yet persisted in launching a quiet and accessible campaign based on evidence. Her environmental movement, plea for grassroots action, and “citizen brigades,” continue to encourage balance to our growth and our impact on the environment.
Rachel's bio contributed by JASON MATHIAS.