By Jaime Seltzer
“If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” – Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson is perhaps the most instantly recognizable name in twentieth-century biology. She was born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, and died in Silver Spring Maryland.
Young Rachel wanted to be a writer, and was published for the first time at the age of ten in a magazine written by and for children called St. Nicholas, which had also published the works of a young William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1925, Rachel went to college for writing at the Pennsylvania College for women, but was convinced at some point that she was not going to be able to ‘make it’ as a writer, and switched to biology.
Biology was Rachel’s second love rather than a fallback career. She had first become fascinated by the topic when she found a fossilized seashell near her home in Pennsylvania and realized that at one time a vast, Paleozoic sea had covered the land on which she stood. Rachel saw her first glimpse of the ocean while doing undergraduate work at the U.S. Marine Laboratory in Massachusetts at a summer fellowship. Her work there was so impressive that she received a scholarship to Johns Hopkins for her graduate work, in 1929.
Rachel continued to use her talent for writing and her love of the sea to write articles for local newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun and even had a radio program called Romance Under the Waters, a seven-minute discussion of aquatic life of the sort you might hear on NPR today. Shortly thereafter she was hired by the newly-created U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she became chiefly responsible for anything they created to present to the American people.
It was her books, however, that netted the public’s attention. In Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel used a dreamy, poetic voice that offered the reader a glimpse into the awe-inspiring world of the deep ocean – a style that would thereafter come into fashion for authors writing scientific works geared to the general public. Her second book, The Sea Around Us, was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 81 weeks. Its wild success caused Rachel to cease her work for Fish and Wildlife to be a full-time writer as she had once dreamed.
To understand what came next and the firestorm that Rachel unleashed with her next book requires a little bit of chemical history. If you have read any of the other histories here, you already understand that World War II produced numerous scientific advancements in chemistry, physics, and biology. After the war was over, there were stockpiles of leftover chemicals that had been used for warfare, or were byproducts or components to processes that created those wartime chemicals. Rather than take a loss, some creative brainstorming was employed to determine other potential uses for them.
DDT, for example, had been used to kill insects in malaria-ridden military outposts. After the war, it was sprayed from refitted military airplanes over crops in the United States. All across the country, DDT trucks drove through the suburban neighborhoods, releasing a cloud of DDT behind them. The suburban children of the 1950s and 1960s thought this was great fun, and ran into and out of the smoke.
You may wonder if all of the country were operating under some kind of mind control experiment, because nothing about this sounds like a good idea. To start with, insect-borne illness was not exactly rampant in the United States – the first publicized cases of Lyme would not occur for another decade or two. Second, all logic tells us that something that is deadly to any living thing is a poison, though it may be more or less hazardous for one type of organism than another. Finally, the idea of applying anything poisonous so indiscriminately as to pour it over schoolchildren seems frankly shocking. DDT was even soaked into wallpaper made for children’s playrooms; housewives carried small spray-guns wherever they went, squirting DDT next to food to avoid contamination by insects. The use of DDT was indiscriminate and ubiquitous.
What you may not realize is that the reason you view this as shocking is in part due to Rachel Carson’s third book, the contents of which have permeated the American narrative, categorized in people’s subconscious under Nature: Science – bad ideas. Though the scientists as individuals varied in their understanding of the impact these newly-introduced chemicals might have on the culture and the environment, the advertising industry presented a picture of technology and ‘better living through chemistry’ as curing all of society’s ills. It took Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, to inform the public of the danger.
It is not an exaggeration to say that when Carson wrote Silent Spring, the environment was in crisis. The Environmental Protection Agency did not yet exist. Any company or corporation could dump any product it liked, wherever it liked, in whichever quantity it liked. And according to Rachel, the bugs and the birds were disappearing off the face of the earth so suddenly that the crickets and cicadas of her childhood had been silenced. Her friend, who kept a bird sanctuary, emerged one day to find that her lands had been DDT’d from above, and that her birds had been poisoned to death. The birds that survived produced eggs with shells too thin to protect their young.
Silent Spring was an indictment of the indiscriminate use of industrial chemicals and of the oblivious attitude of American citizens; but the indictment was written in Carson’s trademarked voice of evocative, almost poetical sympathy, so that the reader was left thrumming with outrage and desperate to change the course of environmental destruction. It is commonly acknowledged that the contemporary environmental movement began in 1962 with its publication, and that its publication led to the creation of the EPA.
The chemical companies that produced DDT immediately launched a counter-campaign against Carson, attacking her professionally and personally – in fact, there was a rumor that a fund had been set aside for that sole purpose, to the tune of a quarter million dollars. One of those efforts was a widely-distributed mocking parody of her first chapter, which described a future without wildlife. She was immediately characterized as a leftist – which, in those times, meant Communist – and was said to be working with “sinister parties” whose goal was to undermine American invention and ingenuity by (gasp!) asking people to question the products that were in widespread use. Insecticide companies threatened to sue her if she dared publish. Carson once joked that there were a great many people who had never read her book, but “disapprove[d] of it heartily”.
Perhaps the only attack leveled against Carson that had any logic to it at all was that her actions could have contributed to the spread of malaria in Africa. For better or worse, Carson’s book did not have significant impact on the legislation of DDT in Africa as a whole, where it is still legal to this day; her actions led to the ban of DDT in the United States. In addition, as she predicted in Silent Spring, the widespread use of DDT led to the disease-carrying mosquito population becoming immune to its use as the susceptible mosquitoes died off, and the mosquitoes born resistant continued to multiply.
Carson testified before the U.S. Senate on the contents of her book in 1963. Though no one knew it at the time, she was dying of cancer, in terrible pain as she testified. She hadn’t wanted anyone to know, because she feared she would be judged as less reputable, since she had argued that certain insecticides contributed to cancer risk. She would pass away one year later.
One of Rachel’s most important messages is that good science and good scientists must sometimes work counter to corporate interests. Today, decades after the ban of DDT, the chemical still lingers in significant quantities in food products sold in the United States, especially milk and fish. Retrospective studies on women who were exposed to DDT as young girls found a fivefold increase in breast cancer.
Despite the evidence, the counter-campaign wasn’t entirely unsuccessful: a group of DDT-deniers still exist, insisting the chemical is safe, and painting Carson as a conspiracy theorist.
Cone, M. (2009, May 4). Should DDT Be Used to Combat Malaria? Scientific American. Retrieved October 2, 2015, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ddt-use-to-combat-malaria/
DDT: A Brief History and Status. (2015, January). In EPA: United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on October 2, 2015 from http://www2.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/ddt-brief-history-and-status
Lear, L. (1998). Rachel Carson’s Biography. In The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson. Retrieved from http://www.rachelcarson.org/Biography.aspx#.Vg61sytZOao
Rachel Carson Biography – Rachel Carson. (2013, February 5). In U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Retrieved October 2, 2015, from http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Rachel_Carson/about/rachelcarson.html
Souder, W. (2012, September 4). Rachel Carson Didn’t Kill Millions of Africans. In Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/09/silent_spring_turns_50_biographer_william_souder_clears_up_myths_about_rachel_carson_.html
Steingraber, S. (2012, August). The Fracking of Rachel Carson. Orion Magazine. Retrieved from http://orionmagazine.org/article/the-fracking-of-rachel-carson/