Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, conservationist, and writer from the United States who wrote the book, Silent Spring, that inspired progress in the worldwide environmental movement and helped start the Environmental Protection Agency. She wrote several other books about her experiences as an aquatic biologist before turning to environmental advocacy. Silent Spring attacked synthetic pesticides and led to the U.S. ban on DDT and other harmful pesticides. Jimmy Carter awarded her the Presidential Medial of Freedom posthumously.
Young Life and Academics
Rachel Louise Carson was born on a small farm outside Springdale, Pennsylvania on May 27, 1907, to parents Robert Warden Carson, an insurance salesman, and Maria Frazier McLean. She read much as a child and wrote her first stories at eight years old. She published her first story at age 10. She attended a local Springdale school until 10th grade and finished high school in Parnassus, Pennsylvania at the top of her class in 1925.
Carson enrolled at the Pennsylvania College for Women, now known as Chatham University, as an English major, but in January 1928, she changed to biology while continuing to write for the school newspaper. She graduated in 1929 magna cum laude with a biology degree. She began summer work at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts before entering Johns Hopkins in the fall of 1929 to study genetics and zoology.
Carson studied part time and worked in the laboratory of Raymond Pearl to pay for her tuition. She wrote her dissertation on how the pronephros forms during embryonic development in fish. In June 1932, she graduated with her Master’s in zoology. She turned her sights on a doctorate, but family troubles forced her to exit John Hopkins and find a paid, full-time teaching job in 1934. Her father died the following year, forcing her to financially support and care for her mother.
The U.S. Bureau of Fisheries hired Carson part-time to write an educational program called “Romance Under the Waters” broadcast over the radio in an attempt garner public interest in the bureau’s work and the biology of fish. She used her research to write articles for local magazines and newspapers about Chesapeake Bay marine life. In 1936, Carson took the civil service test and outperformed all the other candidates. The Bureau of Fishers hired her to a full-time position as a junior aquatic biologist, only the second woman ever hired for a full position.
Marine Biologist CareerRachel Carson analyzed and reported data on fish populations and wrote public educational literature and brochures for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. She also wrote articles for many newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun. Her older sister died in January 1937, leaving her the sole caregiver for her two nieces and her mother. Carson wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly in July 1937 that ran as Undersea. Simon & Schuster Publishing House suggested she turn it into a book. In 1941, they published Under the Sea Wind which sold poorly, but received great reviews from critics.
Rachel Carson used her literary skills to educate the public about important marine wildlife issues.
Carson first discovered DDT, the new pesticide being used in the U.S., in 1945, but editors did not share her interest. She became chief publication editor for the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1949 and turned her sights to full-time writing. She completed the manuscript for “The Sea Around Us” after a request from Oxford University Press in 1950. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1952, the Burroughs Medal, and spent 86 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. The same year she quit her job to write full-time.
Rachel Carson conducted research on the organisms and ecology of the Atlantic Coastline starting in 1953. She finished “The Edge of the Sea” the final volume of her ocean trilogy in 1955 and published by Houghton Mifflin to positive reviews. She continued her writing and research, developing a conservationist theme after joining the Nature Conservancy and similar groups.
When one of Carson's nieces passed in 1957, she moved to Silver Spring, Maryland to care for her neice's orphaned son, Roger Christie. After getting settled, her focus turned to the national pesticide programs using organophosphates and chlorinated hydrocarbons and remained there for the rest of her professional career.
Silent SpringRachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to address “the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture,” according to her biographer, Mark Hamilton Lytle. IT addressed much of the profound and, too often negative, impact humanity has on nature.
Despite criticism, Rachel Carson never wavered in her view that pesticides negatively impact the environment and her strong convictions led to national environmental reform still in place today.
Carson called out the chemical industry for misleading public officials and detailed the environmental devastation of pesticides along with the human effects from poisoning to cancer. She hypothesized future natural consequences, including pests developing a resistance to the pesticide, and promoted biotic pest controls rather than chemical ones.
Houghton Mifflin published Silent Spring on September 27, 1962. A TV special with CBS aired on April 3, 1963, discussing the details in the book with experts and critics and the show triggered a congressional review to take place. Carson testified at the Committee and they issued a report on May 15, 1963, supporting her claims.
Death of Rachel Carson
In December 1960, while researching Silent Spring, Carson’s doctors discovered a malignant tumor that metastasized and began to spread. She contracted a respiratory virus in January 1964 from her cancer treatments. By February, she developed anemia from the radiation and, by March, cancer attacked her liver. Rachel Louise Carson died on April 14, 1964, of a heart attack at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland. She was cremated and her remains buried with her mother in Rockville, Maryland at the Parklawn Memorial Cemetery.
Lear, L. (1998). Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Owl Books (NY).
- Jimmy Carter Library. (2016, April 28). Medal of Freedom Awards by President Carter 1977-1981. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.
- University of New England. (2016). Rachel L. Carson Collection, 1946-1964. Maine Women Writers Collection.
- Lear, 1998
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2013, February 5). Rachel Carson Biography. Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge - Maine.
- Lear, 1998
- Lear, 1998
- Lear, 1998
- National Book Foundation. (2016). National Book Awards - 1952. National Book Foundation.
- Lear, 1998
- Lytle, M. H. (2007). The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Carson, R. L. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Lear, 1998
- Find A Grave. (1998, November 27). Rachel Louise Carson (1907 - 1964). Find A Grave Memorial.