Rachel Carson: Her book The Silent Spring birthed a conservation movement and creation of the EPA

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Today is the birthday of marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson. She was an English major at the Pennsylvania College for Women, but in her junior year she took a biology course. She loved it so much that she changed her major to zoology.

She was working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries when she wrote some text for a department publication that was so literary her boss gave it back to her and told her to send it to Atlantic Monthly. That essay, published in the magazine in 1937, became the basis for her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. She worked her way up to editor-in-chief for all the publications of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She resigned in 1952 to devote herself to her own writing.

She won the National Book Award in nonfiction for her second book, the The Sea Around Us. In her acceptance speech, she said:

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science….The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

It was Silent Spring, first serialized in The New Yorker in 1962, that made Carson a household name. She opened the book with a fable that was a composite of several wilderness areas. It described a spring morning in which there was no birdsong but only silence because the ecosystem had been destroyed by the widespread misuse of harmful pesticides like DDT.

Although the book was the result of six years ofscientific research. Carson’s detractors dismissed the book as “fiction” because of this opening fable. The chemical industry and its allies declared war on Carson, smearing Carson’s reputation as a scientist. Later critics claimed that her campaign against pesticides resulted in millions of malaria deaths that could have been prevented by the use of DDT. But she persisted, urging the American public to think critically about the messages they receive from pesticide companies and the government. “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used,” she wrote. “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”

President Kennedy read Silent Spring in 1962 and formed a presidential commission to re-examine the government’s pesticide policy. The commission endorsed Carson’s findings. Her book and her advocacy boosted public awareness of environmental matters and birthed a conservation movement that would eventually lead to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. She died of cancer in 1964, two years after Silent Spring was published.

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