Remarkable Women: Rachel Carson

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

 

Our latest Remarkable Woman is Scientist and Writer Rachel Carson, responsible for essentially launching the modern environmental movement.

Admittedly, I had never even heard Carson’s name before I began my research for this post.  But friends, let me tell you, if you’re not familiar with our girl Rachel, she has very quickly become one of my favorite women in STEM.  Her thirst for knowledge, combined with her eloquent prose and quick wit, drew me to her instantly.  She wrote with passion, studied with intention, and fought her battles with dignity.

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania to parents Maria McLean and Robert Warden Carson.  Her mother instilled in her a deep love of nature from a very young age, teaching her plant names and animal calls.  Realizing her talent even as a child, Rachel became a published writer for children’s magazines by the age of 10, and won her first writing prize just a year later for a story published in St. Nicholas Magazine.

After graduating high school with honors, Rachel won a scholarship to attend Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), starting classes in 1925.  Carson had orginally intended to major in English and become a teacher, but changed her major to Biology two years in and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1929.

By the age of 25, Rachel Carson had completed a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University.  In the three years she spent there, she won a scholarship, completed a coveted internship, taught summer school at the University, taught for a different Maryland university, and found time to write her thesis on “The Development of the Pronephyros During the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of the Catfish.”

Rachel’s mother played a huge role in Carson being able to accomplish all these feats so quickly.  While Rachel was in school, Maria would sell apples, chickens and even the family china in order to pay Rachel’s tuition.  Additionally, Maria would travel every weekend to visit Rachel and type her papers for her, as she also later did with Rachel’s books.

Carson made history by becoming only the second woman to ever be employed by the US Bureau of Fisheries, after being hired on to write 52 radio programs about marine life for the series “Romance Under the Waters” in 1935.  At this time, the Carson family was rather poor, as the Depression hit full force, and the family even survived for a while on apples alone.  Rachel’s father Robert would pass away that same year.

By the end of 1935, Rachel completed her Federal Service Exams for junior wildlife biologist and junior aquatic biologist.  The next year, she was hired on as a junior aquatic biologist by the Bureau of Fisheries Department of Commerce.  Quickly, Rachel rose through the ranks of the Bureau as a Scientist and Editor, nabbing promotion after promotion until she became Editor-In-Chief of all publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

While she worked as a biologist, she also wrote articles for other publications and even a handful of books.  Early in her writing career, she kept a collection of rejection slips from magazines and publications, though it wasn’t long before she became a prominent voice in environmental science.  Her works were published by the Atlantic Monthly, the Baltimore Sun, and The New Yorker, among others.  Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was published in 1941.  Because Carson’s voice was so assertive in this book, many male reviewers began to believe that the female writer must have surely been half-male.  (This is the part where I have to suppress the urge to call said male reviewers some inappropriate names).

During her time working in government, Carson learned of the growing use of synthetic chemical pesticides following World War II.  She began researching a chemical known as DDT, and soon became a strong advocate against its use.  In 1944, she proposed an article regarding DDT and its effects to Reader’s Digest, but they declined, calling it too “unpleasant”.  Two years later, she began her “Conservation in Action Series”, traveling the country researching and writing about natural refuges for the projected 12-booklet series.

Rachel Carson left her job at the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1951 in order to pursue her writing full time.  In the first year since leaving her job, she finished her second book, The Sea Around Us, and subsequently won six awards in 1952 alone, including the National Book Award for Non-Fiction and the Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for her research in preparation for her next book.  That next book, The Edge of the Sea, was published in 1953.

Throughout the 1950s, Rachel dedicated her work to cultivating a love of nature in the public, and began advocating in earnest to ban the use of DDT.  Meanwhile, The Sea Around Us became a record breaking best-seller, holding its spot on the New York Times list for eighty-six weeks.

She also fell in love around this time.  Rachel bought a home on Southport Island, Maine, where she ended up spending most of her time.  There she met Dorothy Freeman, a married woman who spent summers there with her family.  The two wrote passionate love letters back and forth, though much of it was destroyed in the wake of Carson’s death.  It’s said that Rachel used to keep her favorite letters hidden under her pillow.  Often they would include two letters in one envelope, so that one could be read in front of their families, and one in private.  They each kept a “Strong box” of letters they meant to destroy for fear of them being seen.  The two women would remain close for the rest of Carson’s life, with Freeman offering her support through some of her biggest political and physical trials.

It is safe to say that Carson made a strong rival against chemical companies.  Said companies would try everything they could to discredit her work, calling her a Communist, an alarmist, and even a hysterical woman.  Still, Carson pushed forward and continued to warn the American people that they were only a small fraction of the natural world, and that they were susceptible to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem.

In 1960, Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently underwent a radical mastectomy.  Her doctor did not suggest any further treatment, and failed to provide any information about the tumors or tissue removed.  When she pressed him with questions, he lied, as was common with female patients.  Rachel kept quiet about her diagnosis, not only because she was a relatively private person, but also because she did not want the chemical companies so hell-bent on taking her down to try to use it to discredit her in any way.  And in a brilliant move of cunning, she also reasoned that it would look far worse for those companies after her death if she allowed them to attack her at full force.  Over the next few years, Rachel grew sicker and sicker, receiving more surgeries and injections, and collecting illnesses like they were baseball cards.  The flu, staph infections, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and eye infections are just some of the complications she faced in her battle with cancer.

Perhaps Carson’s most well-known work, Silent Spring was published in 1962.  The book reported on the negative effects of the use of pesticides.  The book quickly rose into fame, or infamy, depending on who you asked.  President John F. Kennedy soon brought the book up in a press conference, and later the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) issued the report, “The Uses of Pesticides,” upholding Carson’s warnings.  Kennedy also informed the public that the PSAC then began looking into the misuse of pesticides.

Silent Spring drew its fair share of critics, but Carson was aptly prepared to defend her work.  In rebuttal of these criticisms, she said, feigning puzzlement, “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”  She was later quoted saying, “Now, to these people, apparently, the balance of nature was something that was repealed as soon as man came on the scene.  Well, you might just as well assume that you could repeal the law of gravity.”  It’s this rhetoric that took me from ‘she’s really smart’ to ‘I love this woman’.

Though growing sicker almost by the minute, Carson spent a good deal of her time in 1963 rallying against widespread use of pesticides by going all the way to the top.  That June, she testified in front of the US Senate Committee on Government Operations, calling for limits on the number of pesticides being used.  Two days later, she testified before the US Senate Commerce Committee.

That same year, CBS Reports ran a special on Rachel Carson, titled “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson”.  Many chemical companies were so upset about the special that they pulled their ads from the show in protest, but Carson got her triumph anyway.  The interview was conducted sitting rather than standing, as by that time Rachel was too sick to stand.  She wore a heavy wig on camera due to her hair loss.  Her interviewer reportedly told CBS to air the show as soon as possible because “you’ve got a dead leading lady.”

Rachel Carson died on April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Ultimately, she lost her fight against breast cancer.

Her final book, The Sense of Wonder, was published in 1965 after her death, and has become an icon of Carson’s work in the natural world.  The US banned the use of DDT in the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act of 1972, due in large part to Carson’s work.  And in 1980, Rachel Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

If there are two things that I can take from my research about Carson it is these: that she is arguably the biggest reason we even have the environmental knowledge and care today that we are so lucky to have, and, more importantly, that her love for the natural world propelled her to a life of passion, mindfulness, and success.  First and foremost, she always considered herself an admirer of the sea and the world surrounding it, and that is how I choose to remember her.

 

10 Things That Make Rachel Carson Remarkable:

  1. Rachel was the second woman to ever be hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries
  2. As a highly educated woman, Rachel became the primary breadwinner for her family following her father’s death in 1935.
  3. Rachel Carson was a published writer by the age of 10, having written features for children’s magazines in her childhood.
  4. Carson’s book The Sea Around Us won a National Book Award, and held its spot on the New York Times best-seller list for a record-breaking eighty-six weeks.
  5. It was Carson’s work that spurred the federal action eventually leading to the banning of DDT in the US in the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act.
  6. Despite the fact that she couldn’t swim, Rachel built an entire career of an admiration for the sea and its ecosystem, studying aquatic biology until her death.
  7. In her early writing career, Carson made a collection of rejection slips she’d received from various magazines and journals. I can only wish that I would cultivate the same level of resilience in my own work.
  8. Carson had no hesitation in calling out her opponents on their criticisms of her work, as demonstrated following the release and subsequent backlash of her book, Silent Spring.
  9. Following the death of her sister, Rachel adopted her nephew and cared for him as her own son.
  10. In 2012, her book Silent Spring was given the designation of a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.

 

Research for this post comes from:

http://www.rachelcarson.org/Default.aspx

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/rachel-carson

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/26/the-right-way-to-remember-rachel-carson

Photo from: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/story-silent-spring

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