Time magazine called her book an emotional and inaccurate outburst.

She was labeled a communist and vilified by the American government and throngs of chemical companies. But, to use a modern phrase for the life-changing work of Rachel Louise Carson, she persisted.

In fact, Rachel Louise Carson did more than persist with the release of her book  Silent Spring in 1962.  Rachel sounded a cataclysmic environmental alarm around the world and across America, questioning the efficacy, the unmeasured effects and the unintended consequences of chemical pesticide use.

Rachel seemed like an unlikely crusader as a writer turned biologist.  Raised in a small farming community in Western Pennsylvania, she started her career with the  U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and WildLife Services.  She was hired to create pamphlets and write a series of radio episodes about marine life for a program called, Romance Under Waters.

This fueled Rachel’s love of the planet and our oceans so she continued to produce more articles for publication in newspapers and magazines.  It also spurred her to enthrall people with larger works, like her popular books  Under the Sea (1941) and The Sea Around Us (1951). Her second book was translated into 32 languages and made the NY Times Best-seller list for 81 weeks.

As Editor-in-Chief of all Fish and Wildlife publications, Rachel became a household name as a compelling scientist and an exploratory and inviting writer.  Millions of fans were drawn to her descriptive passages that appealed to our best instincts and truth:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment’s of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

(Carson’s, The Sense of Wonder, 1965)

Photo credit: Getty Images

But over the course of her work, Rachel began to question the undocumented dangers of synthetic chemical use.

She had gathered scientific research during her earliest work in marine biology and this provided the basis for research and documentation in Silent Spring.  She also had opportunities to visit fisheries and farms, and to connect with scientists who were the first to see the impending dangers and side effects of DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane), the most widely used synthetic pesticide.

Increasingly, she felt compelled to speak up despite the controversy it would surely cause.  As a naturalist, Rachel felt obligated to warn the unsuspecting public and to save what she loved most in the world, the environment. Initially, Rachel wrote about some of these concerns and even pitched an article to Reader’s Digest, who turned it down saying people wouldn’t want to know about these dangers.

When government agencies and chemical companies found out about Rachel’s work and that she was about to release a book, they lobbied to block it and threatened to sue her.  Rachel was attacked in the press and by the Food and Drug Administration and other agency experts who tried to counter her claims saying she wasn’t a real scientist.  When this didn’t work and Rachel’s voice began to win followers, the government offered half-truths that suggested there weren’t enough long-term studies to warrant concern.

But Rachel’s research and comments throughout Silent Spring were irrefutable.  She asked us to consider our relationship to nature and the legacy of destruction for future generations.

Like all great tragedies, it was naive and arrogant for anyone to assume that science could control the complex interrelationship we humans have with nature.  Negative consequences were inevitable as Rachel noted in this passage:

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” (excerpt from Silent Spring)

Over the course of four years, Rachel quietly battled breast cancer while she continued her fight against the government and the chemical companies.  She kept her illness a secret until she passed away in 1964 from breast cancer.  Ironically, even in her death, Rachel’s legacy of work spoke volumes about the risk of this synthetic chemicals.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 of Where Would the World Be Without Rachel Carson?

Rose McInerney

Author Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

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