After this last week of news, I wanted to use this post to talk about the role of government policies on the environment and the impact of science communication and journalism on policy. To bring some hopefulness and optimism into the discussion, I thought it would be a great time for another one of our Heroes of Science posts. This week’s hero is Rachel Carson, a marine biologist turned conservationist and science writer. Carson fought an uphill battle to protect wildlife and human health in the 1950’s through her book Silent Spring and her tireless efforts to connect with scientists and politicians.
This post is not meant to be a complete summary of the life of Rachel Carson but rather a presentation of the context of her life and work and why we feel she is a hero of the scientific community. If you want to learn more about Carson, check out our sources of information here and here.
Carson was born in 1907 and grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where she enjoyed spending her free time exploring the lands around her family farm. In addition to studying the natural world, Carson was an avid reader and began her collegiate career by studying English before switching to biology. After graduating with a Masters degree in zoology and needing to take care of her family, Carson started working part-time at the US Bureau of Fisheries instead of going for a PhD. In the Bureau she was in charge of writing scripts for radio broadcasts that focused on aquatic life as a means for the Bureau to inspire more public interest in their activities. In addition to her work writing for “Romance under the waters”, Carson was an active freelance writer and was regularly submitting articles about fishery science to local newspapers and magazines.
In 1936, Carson was promoted to junior aquatic biology position and became only the second woman to earn a full-time job in the Bureau of Fisheries. While busy analyzing and reporting data on fish populations, she was also regularly writing brochures for the public as well as writing regular articles for the Baltimore Sun. Carson soon became an even more active writer, expanding into Nature magazine and publishing her first book Under the Sea Wind in 1941. Critics welcomed her engaging prose and her in-depth knowledge on the topic, but sales were not as high as publishers had hoped.
Her second book The Sea Around Us was serialized in Science Digest and was a much larger commercial success, giving her the support to pursue a writing career full-time. She then transitioned to working in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and shifted her topics from oceanography to conservation. She soon became interested in a newly marketed chemical called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (or DDT for short). The chemical was only recently being tested for its safety in the environment after extensive use during World War II. The Nature Conservancy was trying block the widespread usage of pesticides such as DDT, which were being used to kill fire ants and other insects.
In 1959 the USDA responded to this increased concern about the topic with a public service film “Fire Ants on Trial” to highlight the benefits of pesticide use and brush off the negative health claims. Carson described the film as “blatant propaganda” as she continued to write articles about the connections to pesticide use and plummeting bird populations. Her work highlighting the issues with pesticide over-use and toxicity later became the foundation for what would become her most famous book: Silent Spring.
While summoned to an FDA hearing after high levels of pesticides were found in cranberries grown in the US, Carson saw first-hand the powerful influence that the pesticide manufacturers had in the hearings. Some discussions even went so far as to contradicting the expert testimony provided by the invited scientists.
Amidst government panel hearings, article writing, and battling cancer, Carson finally published Silent Spring in 1962. The book compiled research and information from the mid-1940’s when DDT was just coming into prominent use. The book contains numerous examples of the extensive environmental damages which were attributed to broad DDT use and also highlighted studies from cancer biologists whose data had led to the classification of many of the pesticides as carcinogens.
When the book was published, it wasn’t received with the level of accolades and support it has today. The book gained many critics and the publishers and Carson were afraid of being sued for libel by the chemical companies. But Carson had support in the science of her arguments, with each chapter reviewed by scientists and in whose support she relied on after publishing Silent Spring. Carson also sent an early copy to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an environmental advocate who rejected a previous case that would have allowed DDT to be sprayed on Long Island.
While DuPont and other members of the chemical industry did threaten to sue upon publication and responded to the book with a public campaign on the safety of pesticide use, Carson and her team were ready. Lawyers had arguments bolstered by the confidence in the scientific truths which were being presented. Some scientists did lash out at Carson—one biochemist stated that she was unqualified to make the sort of claims she did since her background was only in aquatic biology. She was accused of trying to return civilization to the Dark Ages crawling with vermin and bugs, and was even accused of being a communist.
But the scare tactics and name-calling were ineffective. Thanks to the support from scientists, the book achieved its goal of increasing public awareness on the dangers of pesticide overuse. The topic appeared as a CBS special report, including interviews from scientists on TV, which soon led to a congressional review of pesticide use. Carson spoke again to a congressional review board and this time her appearance was followed by a report from the science advisory committee that backed Carson’s story. She was able to see the impact of her work and receive numerous honors and awards for her efforts before passing away due to her failing health in 1964.
Carson’s work left an enduring legacy: it was a rallying point for environmental conservationists. It helped led to the creation of the EPA and the subsequent banning of DDT. To this day Silent Spring is considered a story of the victory of science, environmental health protection, and accurate risk communication, an inspiring story that is still pertinent today.
Carson is one of our heroes of science because of her courage in showing future generations how to stand up for the truth to protect the world we live in. She set an example by working with scientists as an engaged journalist and writer. She followed her own lead and thoroughly analyzed the scientific literature she wanted to highlight. Carson shows us all that through collaboration and determination, work that is done in the light of truth and for the greater good can always persevere.