Who Was ... Rachel Carson

Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964) was a marine biologist and writer. She was most famous for her book Silent Spring which criticised excessive pesticide use and triggered advances in the environmental movement and in environmental regulation. 

Rachel Carson grew up on a family farm near Pittsburgh. Her interests in nature and in writing started in childhood and continued at Johns Hopkins University where she obtained degrees in biology and zoology. In 1936 she became the second woman to join the US Bureau of Fisheries in a full-time professional position – junior aquatic biologist.

She combined this work with writing and published her first book on marine biology in 1941. Promotion, many articles and a second marine book followed, and by 1952 she was able to leave the Bureau to write full-time. She then became increasingly interested in pesticide use.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 1960 despite which she continued to work on her magnum opus, Silent Spring, which was published in 1962. Unhappily she died from complications of her cancer in 1964.

Her key idea was that the pesticides which were increasingly widely used were damaging both ecosystems and human health. She blamed overuse of pesticides for the decline in bird populations and drew attention to evidence of them causing cancer. She also criticised the manufacturers for misleading the public and the government for letting them.

Carson argued that pesticide use should be greatly reduced both to minimise the dangers and to stop the pests developing resistance.

The book provoked fierce attacks from the chemical industry but her science and support from other scientists held off the attacks and her work has been vindicated and widely praised. More importantly, it has energised the environmental movement and caused governments to regulate more strictly.

Rachel Carson was years ahead of her time on conservation issues and her 1951 article on climate change must be one of the earliest popular accounts of the problem. But it is for Silent Spring that she is remembered. 

Sources: For more information see:
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Carson
  • Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
  • Matthiessen, Peter (ed), 2007: Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson.  Houghton Mifflin.
Originally published in Green Activist
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