February 5, 2001
Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist and Writer
In September 1962, a book was published that would have a profound impact on conservation policy and the public’s attitude toward the environment. The book was Silent Spring and its author was Rachel Carson. Carson was born in Springdale, Pa., in 1907 and attended the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College). Intending to major in English and composition, she discovered an interest in biology, which led her to Johns Hopkins.
Carson earned a master’s degree in marine biology from Hopkins in 1932, under R.P. Cowles. Prevented from pursuing her doctorate because of financial difficulties, she paired her interest in marine biology with her writing talent to get a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, producing brochures and pamphlets, and also pursued an independent writing career. Beginning with Under the Sea Wind in 1941, followed by The Sea Around Us in 1951 and The Edge of the Sea in 1955, Carson wrote about what she loved most–the marine environment and its relationship with land and with mankind. Her first three books, serialized in popular magazines, were acclaimed for their ability to explain scientific ideas in terms understandable to nonscientists.
While finishing her research for The Edge of the Sea, Carson noticed disturbing trends involving sea creatures and the birds that live along the shore. Their populations were declining drastically and the cause, she came to believe, was indiscriminate use of persistent chemical pesticides, including DDT. Developed during World War II, DDT appeared to give mankind the ability to control nature, assisting farmers to grow healthier crops. What was not understood at the time was that these chemicals remained active in the soil for a long time and did not affect just insects but every living creature in the food chain. One of the publicized effects of DDT was the thinning of egg shells, preventing birds of prey, such as the bald eagle, from hatching their young.
In preparing to write Silent Spring, Carson relied on meticulous research compiled by many scientists. After publication, she was asked to testify before two U.S. Senate committees investigating environmental hazards. Soft-spoken and polite, yet firm in her beliefs, she was an effective advocate for the fledgling environmental movement. Although she faced criticism and ridicule from chemical companies and their lobbyists, the research that she and others compiled has withstood the test of time. She has been credited as the catalyst in an effort that led eventually to the banning of DDT and similar pesticides. The most visible result of her efforts has been gradually increasing populations of birds of prey in our coastal areas.
Carson died of cancer in April 1964, less than two years after her landmark book was published. In 1997, Linda Lear wrote a definitive biography titled Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, relying in part on the university’s Ferdinand Hamburger Jr. Archives to document Carson’s years at Hopkins.