Rachel Carson was born in a small rural Pennsylvania community near the Allegheny River where she spent a great deal of time exploring the forests and streams around her 65-acre farm. As a young child, Carson's consuming passions were the nature surrounding her hillside home and her writing. She was first "published" at the age of 10 in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine dedicated to the work of young writers. Other youngsters who first saw their words in print in St. Nicholas included William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1925 Carson entered Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) as an English major determined to become a writer. Midway into her studies, however, she switched to biology. Her first experience with the ocean came during a summer fellowship at the U.S. Marine Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Upon graduation from Pennsylvania College, Carson was awarded a scholarship to complete her graduate work in biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, an enormous accomplishment for a woman in 1929.
Carson's distinction in both writing and biology won her a part-time position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1935 where she was asked to create a series of 7-minute radio programs on marine life called "Romance Under the Waters." Meantime, she continued to submit writings on conservation and nature to newspapers and magazines, urging from the very beginning the need to regulate the "forces of destruction" and consider always the welfare of the "fish as well as that of the fisherman." Her articles were published regularly by the Baltimore Sun and other of its syndicated papers.
In 1936, Carson became the first woman to take and pass the U.S. Civil Service Test, and ultimately became the Chief Editor of publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was appointed junior aquatic biologist with the Bureau of Fisheries and became one of only two women then employed with the Bureau at a professional level. Her work allowed her to visit often the Chesapeake Bay region where she spoke with watermen and toured commercial plants and conservation facilities in an effort to understand the economics and culture of the area. During World War II, Carson participated in a program to investigate undersea sounds, life and terrain designed to assist the Navy in developing techniques and equipment for submarine detection.
Carson's first book, Under the Sea-Wind, published in 1941, highlighted her unique ability to present deeply intricate scientific material in clear poetic language which could captivate her readers and peak their interest in the natural world. In 1943, Carson was promoted to the position of aquatic biologist in the newly created U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) where she authored many bulletins directed at the American public. One series known as Conservation in Action was devoted to exploring wildlife and ecology on national wildlife refuges in laymen's terms. Another series was entitled Food from the Sea and offered information on the proper preparation as well as the advantages of a diet including fish and shellfish to a public unused to eating freshwater fish.
Carson was moved to the position of Assistant Editor and then Editor-in-Chief of all Fish and Wildlife Service publications where her work included reviewing manuscripts as well as overseeing the FWS Library and its staff, preparing congressional testimony and writing speeches for FWS personnel.
In 1951 Carson's second book, The Sea Around Us, was published and eventually translated into 32 languages. It was on New York's best-seller list for 81 weeks. The success of her second book prompted Carson to resign her position at the Service in 1952 to devote her time to writing. The Sea Around Us along with The Edge of the Sea, a third book published in 1956, opened new a perspective to concerned environmentalists on the term "ecology," the study of "our living place." But it was her last book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, that awakened society to a responsibility to other forms of life. In it, Carson documents in minute biological detail the true menace to the ecosystem caused by harmful pesticides.
Carson had become interested in the danger of pesticides while still associated with the Fish and Wildlife Service. As early as 1945, Carson had become alarmed by government abuse of new chemical pesticides, such as DDT (1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-bis-(p-chlorophenyl) ethane), particularly for use in "predator" and "pest" control programs, which she felt were discharging poisons into the environment with little regard for the welfare of other creatures. Although she had left the Service to work on Silent Spring, her marine studies while there had provided her with early documentation on the effects of DDT on marine life. Since abnormalities always show up first in fish and wildlife, biologists were the first to see the effects of impending danger to the overall environment.
Carson had long been aware of the dangers of chemical pesticides but was also aware of the controversy within the agricultural community which needed such pesticides to increase crop production. She had long hoped someone else would publish an exposé on DDT but realized finally that only she had the background as well as the economic freedom to do it. She made the decision to produce Silent Spring after years of research across the United States and Europe with the help of Shirley Briggs, a former Fish and Wildlife artist who had become editor of an Audubon Naturalist Society magazine called Atlantic Naturalist. Clarence Cottam, another former Fish and Wildlife employee, also provided Carson with support and documentation on DDT research conducted but not generally known.
As expected, her book provoked a firestorm of controversy as well as personal attacks on her professional integrity. The pesticide industry mounted a massive campaign to discredit Carson even though she did not urge the complete banning of pesticides but rather that research be conducted to ensure pesticides were used safely and alternatives to dangerous chemicals such as DDT be found. Carson was assailed by threats of lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that Carson, a scientist, was just a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. A huge counterattack against Carson's accusations was organized, led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid, and the entire chemical industry, and supported by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The federal government, however, ordered a complete review of their pesticide policy and Carson was asked to testify before a Congressional committee along with other witnesses. As a direct result of their study, DDT was banned. Silent Spring became a runaway best-seller, with international reverberations, and is regarded as the cornerstone of the new age of environmentalism. Silent Spring not only influenced the practices of agricultural scientists and government, but also encouraged people to change the way they view their relation to the natural world.
In a television interview, Carson once stated that "man's endeavors to control nature by his powers to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself, a war he would lose unless he came to terms with nature." She died from cancer in 1964 at the age of 57. The Fish and Wildlife Service named one of its refuges near Carson's summer home on the coast of Maine as the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in 1969 to honor the memory of this extraordinary woman.
1941-Under the Sea Wind
1943-Food From the Sea: Fish and Shellfish of New England
1944-Food From the Sea: Fish and Shellfish of the South Atlantic
1951-The Sea Around Us
1955-The Edge of the Sea
1965-The Sense of Wonder (posthumous)
- Rachel Carson.org
- Rachel Carson Institute
- Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
- The Rachel Carson Papers at The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, by William K. Finley
Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.