Rachel Carson: The Finest Nature Writer of Twentieth Century

Rachel Carson: The Finest Nature Writer of Twentieth Century

The sedge is wither’d from the lake, And no birds sing
John Keats
Lines that influenced the title of ‘Silent Spring’

Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, author and conservationist, has been attributed to spearheading the global environmental protection movement.

She is known particularly for her book ‘Silent Spring’. This book brought in a wave of individuals, especially in the public sphere, passionate about the environment’s protection.

Her activism resulted in a ban in the harmful pesticide DDT in the United States and the eventual creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, an independent agency of the United States Federal Government.

Silent Spring’ was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of the ‘Discover’ magazine.

Early Life and Education

Rachel was born to Robert Warden Carson, an insurance salesman, and mother Maria Frazier, on a family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania.

Her childhood was spent reading books written by known naturalists and conservationists such as Beatrix Potter and Gene-Sttraton-Porter. She also read literature from Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville (author of ‘Moby Dick’), and Robert Louis Stevenson among others. 

Rachel Carson had an aptitude for writing at an early age. She had started writing stories at age 8. Some of her stories were published in the children’s magazine ‘St. Nicholas Magazine’.

Rachel was interested in literature and the sea from a young age, and after finishing school, she joined the Pennsylvania College for Women (later called Chatham University) majoring in English.

She later shifted to a major in Biology. She had received admission in John Hopkins University in 1928, but couldn’t attend due to financial constraints.

Rachel Carson in her U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee photo, 1940.
Rachel Carson in her U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee photo, 1940. (Source)

After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she did a summer course at Marine Biological Laboratory, University of Chicago.

She then joined John Hopkins in 1929 completing a Master’s degree in zoology and genetics in 1932. Her dissertation was on the embryonic development of excretory organs in fish.

To earn money to help with her financial situation she worked part-time in Raymond Pearl’s Lab.

Raymond Pearl is considered one of the initial voices, and founders of the field of biogerontology, the study of biological aspects of ageing.

Financial constraints would often interfere with Rachel’s decisions moving forward. The Great Depression brought about difficult times for many people, Rachel included. She wanted to study towards getting a PhD, but dropped out of John Hopkins in 1934, to help her family out.

She tried searching for a full-time teaching job, but her father’s death in 1935, forced her to take a temporary job in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (reorganized later into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940). This brought about a new chapter in her life.

Working in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As a temporary employee Rachel’s job was to improve public interest in the field of marine wildlife and biology. She wrote radio copies for a weekly radio show hosted by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, called ‘Romance Under the Sea’.

Through this, and many other articles she wrote on the side she increased public appreciation towards the marine sciences, a job which her predecessors were unsuccessful in. Her supervisor was very pleased with her work, and at his bequest, she wrote the United States federal civil services exam. She performed very well in the exam, securing a permanent job as a junior aquatic biologist.

She became the second woman ever to get a permanent job in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Apart from working on publications under the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel Carson was also responsible for collecting on-field reports. Pictured above, she is conducting research on the Atlantic Coast with Robert Hines in 1952. Robert Hines was a wildlife illustrator who also worked on Rachel Carson’s first book, ‘Under the Sea Wind’ (Source

An essay ‘The World of Waters’ written by Carson, was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Originally written as a brochure for the Fish and Wildlife Services, her supervisor had deemed it to be good to be used for that.

The publishing house Simon & Schuster was interested in an elongated book version of the essay, prompting her to write her first book, ‘Under the Sea Wind’(1941), which although received good reviews, performed poorly commercially.

Rachel kept on writing actively, in the Baltimore Sun, the Sun Magazine, Nature, and Collier’s, among others and had started working on a manuscript for a second book.

Meanwhile, Carson had risen within the Fish and Wildlife Service, by 1945 supervising a small writing staff and in 1949 becoming chief editor of publications.

Oxford University Press expressed interest in a book on the life history of the ocean, spurring Rachel to complete her second book, ‘The Sea Around Us’(1952), which did very well and was well-received. The book won several accolades, including the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction, the John Burroughs Medal as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s George Westinghouse Science Writing Prize.

Riding the wave of popularity, her first book ‘Under the Sea Wind’ was republished. Both books did very well commercially, allowing Rachel to escape the binds of financial insecurities. This resulted in her transition into a full-time author, quitting her job at the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1952.

The Sea Around Us
‘The Sea Around Us’ was converted into a documentary film of the same title, under Irwin Allen. Although the film won the 1953 Oscar for Best Documentary, Rachel hated it! She felt the movie was scientifically inaccurate and she hated the style it imbibed. She felt the movie was completely different from her book and the entire episode resulted in her never selling film rights for her books again. (Source

‘Silent Spring’: Rachel’s Work as a Conservationist

Rachel began research in 1953, on a third book on the ecosystems and organisms on the Atlantic shore, resulting in the publication of ‘The Edge of The Sea’ in 1955 by Houghton Miffin. Though well-received it still wasn’t as fantastical as ‘The Sea Around Us’. 

Rachel had been reading and looking carefully at synthetic pesticides and their outcome since the mid-1940s. She had started conservationist work and become involved with The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups in 1957 and had been considering writing a book on the environment. An impetus for this came when a friend narrated incidents of bird deaths in January 1958 due to the spraying of DDT.

Hence, started the four-year project that would result in her fourth book the magnum opus, ‘Silent Spring’.

Rachel spent the first two years researching the effects of pesticides and such on the environment. She met with researchers and scientists who were working in such areas. Particularly important was Dr Wilhelm Hueper’s work which had classified many pesticides as carcinogens (cancer-causing).

She also met with advocates for organic and biodynamic farming as well as biological pest control. Though writing moved fairly quickly starting in 1960, it slowed down due to Rachel Carson being diagnosed with cancer and subsequent radiation treatment, with the final drafts being completed in 1962.

Cover of the first Edition of ‘Silent Spring’
Cover of the first Edition of ‘Silent Spring’ (Source

‘Silent Spring’ talked about the damaging impacts humans had on nature.

The book talked about the effects of pesticides on natural ecosystems, talking in particular about the effects on birds, and other species not intended to be eradicated by the pesticides.

‘Silent Spring’ was not restricted to the ecosystem but also talked extensively about the carcinogenic effects of pesticides in humans. The book talked about potential problems arising due to pesticide resistance and damaging consequences of that. The book advocated introducing biological pest control and decreasing the use of pesticides.

Carson knew that she’d have a strong opposition against her book because of the strong support towards pesticides, as a result of disinformation filled propaganda from the industrial companies that manufactured chemicals as well as the United States Government (which believed the corporations lies).

She and her agent spent time collecting support for the book. The book was vetted carefully to prevent defamation charges against them. She had sent proof copies to many people as part of her pre-publication promotion.

Carson was expecting fierce resistance against the messages contained in the book and there was already a buzz due to the pre-publication promotion. Rachel Carson had to hide her illness, for fear the companies will use it as propaganda against her.

Silent Springs was finally published in 1962, making it available to the public. Industrial-lobbyists and companies were very critical of the book, starting counter-information campaigns, brochures and publications intended to state otherwise. But this backfired increasing the public awareness about the ill effects of pesticides.

Disease had rendered her very weak, but Rachel tried to attend as many public events as she could, in a bid to improve public outreach on this topic. The criticism died out in about a year or so, as more and more people started backing and understanding what really was happening. The book influenced many grassroots environmental movements.

The President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) issued a report in 1962 titled “The Uses of Pesticides“ upholding Rachel Carson’s warnings on misuse of pesticides. This would set in motion a legislative and regulatory solution to the problem of pesticides.

One of Carson’s last public appearances, involved her testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee in 1963 calling for a limit to the number of pesticides in use. (Source)

Death and Legacy

Weakened by her cancer, she contracted a respiratory virus. She was diagnosed with anaemia (a result of her radiation therapy for cancer), which further complicated the situation. She died due to a heart attack on April 14, 1964.

‘Silent Spring’ was revolutionary. It was a paradigm shift in sciences, introducing us, holding us accountable to the effects that we have on the natural world. It has and continues to inspire countless environmental scientists and naturalists.

Rachel received a lot of criticism, especially insults targeted at the fact that she was female. She stood strong through it all, through disease, inspiring a generation of feminist scientists as well as strengthening the importance of the field of ecofeminism.

Her book opened dialogues in the Senate, eventually resulting in tighter regulations of pesticide use, banning DDT as well as the eventual creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Her activism was not only limited to the United States of America but opened up similar dialogues, in other countries as well as international forums. There has been groundbreaking work in environmental science as a result.

The world needs more Rachel Carsons, to talk about what isn’t and needs to be talked about. It needs more scientists orienting towards preventing the destruction of the one chance of life that we have.

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