Rachel Carson (1907-1964)



Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 - April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist whose book Silent Spring is often credited with having launched the global environmental movement. Published on September 22, 1962, Silent Spring had an immense effect in the United States, where it spurred a re-evaluation of the national pesticide policy. Rachel Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 9, 1980.

Excerpts from Silent Spring:

  • "We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation; how then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in chemicals we disseminate widely in our environment?"
  • "As crude a weapon as a cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life."
  • "The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man."

“If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones-we had better know something about their nature and their power.”


Toxicological Perspective

Carson's work led directly to the banning of DDT and the modern environmental movement.


Rachel Carson was born in 1907 on her family farm outside Pittsburgh, PA, where she spent much time learning about the natural world. She graduated with high honers from Chatham College and went on to receive her masters from Johns Hopkins University, but she was forced to abandon her doctorate studies because of financial difficulties. She took a position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries; she was only the second woman to be hired by the agency.

At the Bureau, she wrote for a broad spectrum of publications. The Bureau rejected one of her radio scripts, calling it "too literary." She later submitted the script to the Atlantic Monthly for publication. It was accepted and later expanded into her first book, Under the Sea-Wind.

She quickly ascended the leadership ranks at the Bureau, which had become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and became chief editor of publications. She also continued work on her second book, A Profile in the Sea, which was published in parts in numerous magazines. This book, unlike her previous one, was such a commercial success that she was able to quit her job and concentrate on writing full-time.

Carson was increasingly concerned with the use of Pesticides, especially DDT. This concern led her to investigation and research and set her down the path of what would be known as Carson's Crusade. When a friend asked her to use her influence to get the government to stop spraying pesticides in her bird sanctuary, Carson attempted to publish articles in magazines. She was unilaterally rejected as magazines felt people did not want to read about the issue. This spurred her to begin research on Silent Spring. Now that she was a highly acclaimed author, she was able to get numerous chemists, biologists, and naturalists to aid in her research.

She had a vocal band of critics that still continues today. Scientists such as Robert White-Stevens wrote, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth."

Her claim of the carcinogenic effects of DDT is still questioned. Ronald Bailey stated:

"To bolster her case for the dangers of DDT, Carson improperly cited cases of acute exposures to the chemical as proof of its cancer-causing ability. For example, she told the story of a woman who sprayed DDT for spiders in her basement and died a month later of leukemia. In another case, a man sprayed his office for cockroaches and a few days later was diagnosed with aplastic anemia. Today cancer specialists would dismiss out of hand the implied claims that these patients' cancers could be traced to such specific pesticide exposures. The plain fact is that DDT has never been shown to be a human carcinogen even after four decades of intense scientific scrutiny."

While no government agency has yet identified DDT as a known carcinogen, DDT has been listed as a possible or probable carcinogen. For details of various agencies' evaluations of DDT's chronic toxicity, please visit the Pesticide Action Network's page on DDT.

Carson was invited to many speaking and television engagements but was unable to accept the majority of them because of her deteriorating health. She died on April 14, 1964 at age 56; she was not able to witness the goal of her work, the banning of DDT. Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honor the U.S. can bestow.