Forgotten Women: Rachel Carson

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

~ Rachel Carson

Living in an era wrought with increasing awareness and concern for the environment, it is important to remember the person who is often credited for starting it all. She was a marine biologist, an environmentalist, a writer, and a spark that ignited the environmental movement – a woman forgotten by history – Rachel Carson.

Rachel Louise Carson, Portrait photograph, Shoulders up, Three-quarter view, c 56 years of age, 1962. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)

Rachel Louise Carson, Portrait photograph, Shoulders up, Three-quarter view, c 56 years of age, 1962. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)

Born in 1907, Carson is better known for creating awareness of the effects of pesticide on the health and environment than for her work as a marine biologist. Her book, Silent Springs, which Carson wrote later in her life and was published in 1962, served as the main catalyst to the start of the modern environmental movement as we know it today.

In her book, Carson “challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world” (Lear). The book’s focus was on the dangers of the use of pesticide, and because of it, the use of pesticide was eventually banned.

It was through a letter received by a friend, relating the loss of bird life to chemical exposure, that she first became aware of the dangers of pesticide. It was then that she switched to environmental studies from her lifelong word on ocean life. Upon researching and finding considerable data of the negative effects of pesticide throughout the food chain, Carson decided to voice her findings in Silent Springs.

Carson’s findings, though not new and, in fact, known to much of the scientific community, were made public for the first time. This illumination to the reality of the effects of pesticide that much of the general public was unaware of is what give wind to the environmental movement. The question often wondered arises here again: what is it about Carson’s Silent Springs that jolted the “America’s consciousness” (Griswold)?

Her book highlighted the effects exposure to pesticides were having on the ecosystems as well as the drastic and deadly effects they were having on human beings, yes. But it did much more than that. Carson challenged the government and the biggest industrial corporations with her findings by questioning directly the morality and authority of humans to alter nature in any way: “Carson asked the hard questions about whether and why humans had the right to control nature; to decide who lives or dies, to poison or to destroy non-human life” (Lear).

Sick and surrounded by controversy, Carson was battling many monsters simultaneously. She was fighting a long and hard fight with breast cancer at the same time as she was fighting the chemical companies and government officials. They were accusing her of being anything that would potentially discredit her in the eyes of the public, from a Communist to a hysterical alarmist. But even as a woman of her time, she took on the daunting role of facing and challenging the “big-bads” of the industry.  

In 1963, a mere year before she passed away, Carson braved a testimony in front of a pesticide committee in Congress, which was established by President John F. Kennedy, one of her most influential advocates. There, Carson pushed for change in policies regarding the use of pesticides. She acknowledged that the use chemicals cannot be discarded altogether, but she also argued strongly against policies such as aerial spraying.

It was then that Alaska Senator, Ernest Gruening, told her the following: “Every once in awhile in the history of mankind, a book has appeared which has substantially altered the course of history” (Griswold). And alter the course of history was exactly what Silent Springs did because it was “more than a study of the effects of synthetic pesticide. It was an indictment of the 1950s” (Griswold).

Rachel Carson “became a social revolutionary, and Silent Spring became the handbook for the future of all life on Earth” (Lear). This environmental revolution was, to the human race and the world, Carson’s parting gift. She was an example, a role model, and an inspiration because she fought for a healthier ecosystem, a healthier human race, and a healthier world. And she did all this while she battled for a healthier self.

Even though she lost her personal battle, she left the world a legacy to continues fighting the other battles that she had started. She realized and reminded us of our role within the world and the terrifying capacity of it:

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”

Rachel Carson is one of the many forgotten women in the STEM fields, who contributed greatly to the shaping of our past, present, and future. Did you know of her? Do you know of any others? Let’s talk in the comments below and share these untold stories together.

Works Cited:

  1. Griswold, Eliza. “How ‘Silent Spring’ Ignited the Environmental Movement.” The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, 21 Sept. 2012, 26 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/magazine/how-silent-spring-ignited-the-environmental-movement.html.
  2. Lear, Linda. “Introduction” Rachel Carson, The Life and Legacy, 2015, 26 Nov 2016, http://www.rachelcarson.org/Default.aspx
  3. Lear, Linda. “Rachel Carson’s Biography.” Rachel Carson, The Life and Legacy, 2000,  26 Nov 2016, http://www.rachelcarson.org/Bio.aspx.
  4. Michals, Debra. “Rachel Carson.” National Women’s History Museum, National Women’s History Museum, 2015.  26 Nov. 2016, https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/rachel-carson/.
  5. “The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology.” The White House, The White House, 26 Nov 2016, www.whitehouse.gov/women-in-stem.
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