A Brief Biography
In 1992, a panel of distinguished Americans declared Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring the most influential book of the past 50 years. This was one of the latest in a long line of tributes to a woman who almost single-handedly alerted Americans to the dark side of science in alliance with industrial society. Her measured, carefully-worded yet passionate prose was all the more damning because she, herself, was a scientist.
Rachel Carson was born on a farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College), earned a Masters in Marine Biology at Johns Hopkins, taught Zoology at the University of Maryland, and eventually took a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While there, she wrote three books about the sea which gave her the financial independence to quit her goverment job and begin the book which made her famous — and infamous.
It’s important to remember how much controversy Silent Spring aroused when it was published in 1962. The pesticide industry tried to have the book suppressed and challenged it’s findings. When CBS Television scheduled an hour-long news report on Carson’s condemnation of the “rivers of death” the chemical industry was pouring into the country’s water supply, two corporate sponsors withdrew. But the proverbial cat was out of the bag. The book remained on the bestseller list for months and remains in print now, 34 years later. Vice President Al Gore credits Carson’s work with prompting the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency though he points out that, for political reasons, the Agency has failed to live up to its promise. But, as he has also said, Silent Spring helped him and millions of others to develop an environmental consciousness and that was no small accomplishment. Only Aldo Leopold did as much, perhaps, to give scientific respectability to the environmental movement. Among other noteworthy elements of the book, it introduced the term ecosystem to the general public.
Ironically and sadly, while this controversy was swirling around the book, the author was dying of cancer — a cancer that may have been caused by exposure to environmental carcinogens such as those she studied. She died in 1964. One measure of her influence may be seen in the fact that chemical industry sources are still passionately trying to convince people that she was wrong, that “man” can “control” nature through chemistry.