Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

She was belittled as an anti-humanitarian crank, a priestess of nature, and a hysterical woman. The director of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture believed she in­spired a “vociferous, misin­formed group of nature­-balancing, organic gardening, bird-loving, unreasonable citizenry.” An official of the Federal Pest Control Review Board, ridiculing her concern about genetic mutations caused by the use of pesti­cides, remarked, “I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?”

Undaunted, Rachel Carson endured such attacks with a dignity, strength of conviction, and moral courage alien to her opponents. Just what had this native Pennsylvanian done to provoke these venomous and vengeful reactions? She wrote Silent Spring, a book destined to irrevocably change the course of world history.

Rachel Carson never claimed to be anything more than a scientist and an author. A trained marine biologist, she devoted her life to exploring, understanding, and sharing – in exquisitely lyrical prose – the wonders of ocean life. Her decision to write Silent Spring, a book warning of the hazards of pesticide misuse and abuse, was not easy. Her earlier books had revealed the beauty, the diversity, and the incredible vitality of nature. With Silent Spring, however, Carson con­fronted the senseless destruc­tion of nature by a society blinded by technological pro­gress. But she did not intend it to be a book about death.

“In each of my books,” she later explained, “I have tried to say that all the life of the planet is inter-related, that each species has its own ties to others, and that all are related to earth. This is the theme of The Sea Around Us and the other sea books, and it is also the message of Silent Spring.” Long before the word ecology found its way into the public lexicon, Rachel Carson spoke a philosophy of environmentalism.

Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, a small town on the western bank of the Alle­gheny River, about fifteen miles north of Pittsburgh. In 1900, her father, Robert War­den Carson, an aspiring real estate developer, had pur­chased sixty-five acres on the outskirts of Springdale, specu­lating that the burgeoning steel city to the south would soon come calling. But Pitts­burgh looked the other way, leaving the Carsons financially strapped, and young Rachel free to roam the undeveloped and unspoiled countryside.

Her mother, Maria McLean Carson, had been a teacher. Happy and committed to her career, she delayed marriage until what, in 1896, was con­sidered the near-spinsterly age of twenty-six. She was thirty­-seven years old when Rachel, her third and last child, was born. Maria encouraged her daughter’s exploration of the woods and meadows sur­rounding their modest farm­house, instilling in Rachel much of her own love of nat­ure and fierce independence. As an adult, Carson said that she could recall “no time when I wasn’t interested in the out­-of-doors and the whole world of nature. Those interests, I know, I inherited from my mother and have always shared with her.” Maria Car­son also indulged her Rachel’s love of books, and read aloud to her in even her earliest years. Rachel later began writ­ing and submitting stories for publication to St. Nicholas, a popular children’s magazine. At the age of ten, she won the magazine’s Silver Badge, a ten dollar prize, and saw her story in print. She knew one day she would be a writer.

After graduating from Parnassus High School, Car­son enrolled in the Pennsylva­nia College for Women – now Chatham College – in Pitts­burgh with a one hundred dollar scholarship. Far from the one thousand dollars needed to finance a single year of tuition, books, laboratory fees, and room and board, Carson sought help from Cora Coolidge, college president, and Mary Marks, dean. Im­pressed by Carson’s earnest­ness, intelligence, talent, and dedication, the women lobbied their friends for personal loans to cover the remaining fees. Eventually, Carson would sell a portion of her family’s land to settle the debt.

She majored in English and continued to write, submitting articles and stories for the college’s newspaper and liter­ary magazine. But a require­ment that every student take two semesters of science soon complicated – and changed – her life.

Biology teacher Mary Skinker inspired in her stu­dents a fascination with nature, and renewed Carson’s childhood love of the out­doors. Skinker often con­ducted classes in the nearby wilderness of Cook State For­est, at the edge of the alluvial plain at McConnell’s Mill, or hiking amid the forests, streams and wildlife near the interurban railway between Pittsburgh and Butler.

Rachel Carson’s friends and sponsors were surprised and dismayed when, in her junior year, she changed her major to zoology. Offered only reluc­tantly by the college, science was not thought an appropri­ate avenue for a woman, espe­cially one whose writing held such promise. Their argu­ments, however, did not sway her. After spending nearly all of her last year happily closeted in the laboratory making up for lost time, Carson gradu­ated magna cum laude in 1928.

As a child, Rachel had often held to her ear the large conch shell displayed in her mother’s parlor. Ever since the first time she heard its magical song, she dreamed of looking out upon the sea. Her wish came true the summer following gradua­tion, when her college spon­sors arranged for six weeks of study at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There Carson joyfully labored from sunrise to late at night in extensive libraries and state-of-the-art laboratories in the company of the nation’s foremost ocean­ographers and marine biolo­gists. In autumn, Carson commenced work on her mas­ter’s thesis at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The Carson family, with Maria at its center, moved with her to a house Rachel found near the Chesapeake Bay. Money was still tight, so despite receiving a full one year scholarship, Carson worked throughout graduate school in the genetics department, assisting Dr. Ray­mond Pearl and Dr. H. S. Jen­nings. An assistant teaching position in the zoology depart­ment at the University of Maryland contributed a few more needed dollars to the family coffers. In 1932, Carson received her master of arts degree in marine zoology. She continued teaching part-time after graduation, desperately trying to help her family make ends meet during the early years of the Great Depression. The situation became critical in July 1935, when her father died of a heart attack, leaving Rachel to support her mother.

Recalling an earlier meeting at the United States Bureau of Fisheries with Elmer Higgins, head of the Division of Scien­tific Inquiry, Carson sought work there. The bureau was in the midst of writing and pro­ducing radio shows on the subject of fishery and marine life, known on-the-air as “Ro­mance Under the Seas,” and off-the-air as “Seven-Minute Fish Tales.” Public response to the first several episodes had been less than enthusiastic. Either desperate or intuitive, Higgins asked Carson if she could write. She said yes, and landed the job, opening the door to a career with the Bu­reau of Fisheries that lasted sixteen years.

Nevertheless, hard times persisted at home. The follow­ing year Rachel’s sister, Marion, died at the age of forty, leaving two young daughters. With her mother’s encouragement, Carson took them in, but with the long commute to work every day, the girls’ schooling to consider, and Maria Carson nearing seventy, keeping the old house near the bay no longer made sense. The new, extended Carson family moved to a house nearer to the bureau’s office in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In 1936, Carson took the civil service examination nec­essary for promotion to full­-time junior aquatic biologist. She scored higher than the other candidates – all male – and became the first female biologist ever hired by the Bureau of Fisheries. Elmer Higgins requested that she be assigned to his department.

The article that propelled Carson’s literary breakthrough began, incredibly and oddly enough, as a government document. When the “Ro­mance Under the Seas” broad­casts ended, she was assigned the task of turning the material into a brochure, and writing an opening piece that tied it together. Higgins rejected Carson’s original introduction. She needed to rewrite it, he advised, adding, “But send this one to the Atlantic.” Atlantic Monthly published “Undersea” in September.

Carson’s essay inspired praise from scientists, natural­ists, and literary critics. “Undersea” also confirmed Carson’s conviction that sci­ence and literature were com­patible, and that her passion for biology and her talent for writing could be pursued in harmony. Science gave her wondrous subjects for her writing – and writing helped her share those wonders with the world.

Hendrik Willem Van Loon, author of The Story of Mankind, read “Undersea” and urged his publisher to investigate this new author. After a meet­ing with Van Loon and Quincy Howe, a Simon and Schuster editor, Carson agreed to write her first book. Under the Sea Wind debuted in 1941 to critical acclaim in both literary and scientific circles. Timing proved unfortunate as book sales plummeted with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The war years saw Carson upgraded to Assistant to the Chief of the Office of Informa­tion in the recently created Fish and Wildlife Service. Her responsibility was to promote fish as an alternative to foods in short supply because of the war. Between 1943 and 1945, Carson produced four pam­phlets totaling two hundred extraordinary pages describing sixty-five fresh water and salt water fishes, in addition to a dozen kinds of shellfish. Ex­tremely successful, these booklets served as information sources for newspapers, maga­zines, and radio broadcasts throughout the country.

Rachel Carson’s Washing­ton years may have been the most exciting and social of her career. Even the Fish and Wild­life Service hosted what Shirley Briggs, Carson’s col­league and lifelong friend, described as an astonishing number of parties. “And Rachel was always there if possible,” Briggs recalled. “Rachel appreciated so many kinds of people, and was al­ways glad to meet new ones and enter into whatever con­versation or merriment was going on at these affairs.”

Following World War II, Carson concentrated on a series of twelve booklets for which she coined the title “Conservation in Action.” She wrote at least four herself, and into all of them incorporated a respect for nature, a philoso­phy of conservation, and her belief that people should learn to coexist peacefully with nature. Rarely have govern­ment documents possessed such insight. By fall 1948, Carson had succeeded in mov­ing up the ladder in what had been an exclusively male do­main, earning the grade of biologist, and becoming editor-in-chief of the Informa­tion Division. It had not been an easy climb. Carson’s close friend and associate Bob Hines, a wildlife artist, de­scribed her as “a very able executive with almost a man’s administrative qualities.” Al­though her management style was new to the department, she immediately commanded respect, if not outright admira­tion. “She had the sweetest, quietest ‘no’ any of us had ever heard,” Hines remembered, “but it was like Gibraltar. You didn’t move it. She had no patience with dishonesty or shirking … she didn’t like shoddy behavior … she had standards, high ones.” Carson also inspired a spirit of cooper­ation within the department, and joined in practical jokes when situations grew tense. “Her qualities of zest and humor,” Briggs remembered, “made even the dull stretches of bureaucratic procedure a matter for quiet fun.”

Carson spent every availa­ble opportunity studying the sea: summer weeks research­ing at Woods Hole, scattered days inspecting commercial fisheries, and weekends ex­ploring aquatic wildlife refuges. Still, she yearned to share her fascinating world with others. For her next per­sonal project she envisioned “a book for anyone who has looked out upon the ocean with wonder.”

She wrote The Sea Around Us while working full time for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Sacrificing weekend expedi­tions, and writing late into the night on weeknights, she must have thought her dream of one day earning a living by writing was far off, if possible at all. For two years she persevered.

In 1950, her literary agent, Marie Rodell, who would become a valued friend, sold pre-publication rights for one chapter of The Sea Around Us to the Yale Review. For that chap­ter, “The Birth of an Island,” Carson won the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award. Not long afterward, the New Yorker reprinted parts of the book, Nature Magazine purchased rights to a chapter, and Reader’s Digest published a condensed version. Released by Oxford University Press in July 1951, The Sea Around Us had already become a Book-of­-the-Month Club selection, and before the end of the month it claimed a place on the New York Times best seller list, re­maining there for eighty-one weeks.

Marie Rodell recognized an opportunity for the re-release of Under the Sea Wind; and in 1952 Carson had two books on the best seller list, an occur­rence described by the New York Times as a “publishing phenomenon rare as a total solar eclipse.”

Rachel Carson finally could leave the Fish and Wildlife Service to dedicate her life to writing. The success of her books had given her the finan­cial security she and her mother needed, as well as a chance of a lifetime. She bought land on the coast of Maine and built a summer cottage just steps from the ocean. She began work on a book detailing life at the ocean’s shoreline. Envisioning more than merely a fact-filled guidebook, Carson imbued The Edge of the Sea with her own philosophy of ecology and love of nature. “The shore is an ancient world,” she ex­plained. “Each time I enter it, I gain some new awareness of its beauty and its deeper meanings, sensing the intri­cate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surround­ings.” The New Yorker once again excerpted portions of the book in advance of publication and Reader’s Digest offered a condensed version. After The Edge of the Sea appeared in 1955, it remained on the New York Times best seller list for twenty-three weeks.

Perhaps Rachel Carson’s most personal assignment was an article written for the Wom­an’s Home Companion to help parents introduce their chil­dren to the wonders of nature. Although unmarried, she had been like a mother to her two nieces and, despite the de­mands of her work, had con­tinued to see them often, keeping the family close. She grew especially fond of her grandnephew Roger, who, even as a toddler, delighted in discovering the tiny ocean creatures clinging doggedly to the rocks below Carson’s Maine cottage. “Help Your Child to Wonder” evolved from those treasured moments. Only two years later, upon her niece’s death, Car­son legally adopted Roger, then just five years old. Car­son’s own mother died the next year at the age of eighty­-eight.

Silent Spring might never have been written had it not been for a letter to Carson from Olga Owens Huckins in 1958. Huckins, who owned a private bird sanctuary in Dux­bury, Massachusetts, was horrified one day to find birds dead and dying throughout her property. Only days earlier local agencies had conducted a massive, unannounced spray­ing of the pesticide DDT. Huckins implored Carson to find someone in government to look into the regulations regarding chemical spraying.

Carson had long suspected the dangers posed by the use of DDT. Years earlier, she had tried to interest Reader’s Digest in an article based on research conducted by Elmer Higgins and Clarence Cottram at the Fish and Wildlife Service on the effects of chlorinated hydrocarbons, such as DDT, on wildlife. Reader’s Digest rejected the idea. The findings were not released to the public.

Carson began her investiga­tion anew by cont.acting other biologists, chemists, and ge­neticists, and receiving in return mountains of data and documentation. She reviewed legal suits being brought by sick farm workers and by citi­zens whose pets and livestock had succumbed to pesticide poisoning. The evidence was frightening. The whole story could not be told in an article. It required a book and she would write it. Her conscience demanded it.

For the following four years, Carson sifted through thousands of notes, articles, correspondence, and scientific research abstracts, all the while suffering through what she called a “catalog of ill­nesses,” including arthritis, iritis, ulcers, viral infections, and a heart attack. She de­voted whatever spare moments she could find to Roger.

Upon the completion of Silent Spring in 1962, only the New Yorker was brave enough to acquire pre-publication rights, and the condensed three-part series prompted more mail than any other article in the magazine’s his­tory. Parts of the article were read into the Congressional Record by Sen. William Prox­mire and Rep. John Lindsay. Not long after, Pres. John F. Kennedy announced the for­mation of a special govern­ment group to investigate the use and control of pesticides under the direction of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.

Silent Spring sparked a fire­storm of public outrage. Offi­cially published in September 1962, more than a quarter million copies were sold by the end of the year. A favorable review by Hermann J. Muller, a Nobel Prize-winning biolo­gist, was seconded by Loren Eisely of the University of Pennsylvania, who described the book as a “devastating, heavily documented, relent­less attack upon human care­lessness, greed and irresponsibility…” United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it “the most important chronicle of this century for the human race.” The volume and fervor of the favorable reviews were matched by the intense attacks of the chemical industry and those it influenced. The presi­dent of the Montrose Chemical Corporation, the nation’s larg­est producer of DDT, asserted that Carson had written not “as a scientist but rather as a fanatic defender of the balance of nature.” She was labeled by critics a food-faddist, nature nut, and fish-lover.

Despite poor health, Car­son responded to these attacks by speaking to organizations, testifying at Congressional hearings, appearing on special televised segments of CBS Reports, and conferring with President Kennedy and his Science Advisory Committee.

Made public on May 15, 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee’s report on pesticide use and control confirmed every point high­lighted in Silent Spring. The very next day, a sub-committee of the Senate Committee on Government Operations con­vened to conduct a two-year investigation of government and industry regulations re­garding pesticides.

On April 14, 1964, Rachel Carson died at the age of fifty­-six of the breast cancer that had been diagnosed four years earlier. She lived long enough to receive many of the honors she deserved, among them the Schweitzer Medal of the Ani­mal Welfare Institute; the National Wildlife Federation’s “Conservationist of the Year;” and the first medal awarded to a woman by the National Audubon Society. In the years since Silent Spring was pub­lished, controversy has contin­ued to rage unabated. However, even Carson’s critics have come to agree with her supporters that she did not sound a false alarm concerning man’s dangerous disregard for his environment.

Only a little more than a decade ago, in 1980, Rachel Carson was posthumously awarded the highest civilian decoration in the nation, the Presidential Medal of Free­dom. Perhaps the words that accompanied that honor best tell her story.

Never silent herself in the face of destructive trends, Rachel Carson fed a spring of awareness across America and beyond. A biologist with a gentle, clear voice, she welcomed her audiences to her love of the sea, while with an equally clear voice she warned Americans of the dangers human beings themselves pose for their own environment. Always con­cerned, always eloquent, she created a tide of environmental conciousness that has not ebbed.

 

For Further Reading

Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. Bos­ton: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Gartner, Carol B. Rachel Car­son. New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Company, 1983.

Graham, Frank, Jr. Since Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Hynes, Patricia H. The Recur­ring Silent Spring. New York: Pergamon Press, 1989.

Sterling, Philip. Sea and Earth: The Life of Rachel Carson. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Com­pany, 1970.

 

The editor wishes to acknowledge the gracious assistance of Claudia James, director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, Springdale, in identifying and locating illustrations for this article. The Rachel Carson Home­stead Association administers the farmstead where the internation­ally renowned writer was born and lived for twenty-two years. The Association offers guided interpretative tours of the prop­erty, which has been entered in the National Register of Historic Places, and provides environmen­tal education for all ages. For additional information, write: Rachel Carson Homestead Associ­ation, 613 Marion Avenue, Springdale, Pennsylvania 15144; or telephone (412) 274-5459.

 

Lisa Budwig, a resident of New Cumberland, Cumberland County, is a freelance writer. She is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, where she majored in American Studies.