Rachel Carson, An American Heroine


“The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became. I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important. ” (1962)
— Rachel Carson

Raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, Rachel Carson shared her mother’s love of nature, writing, and learning. The family sacrificed to send Rachel to college. She earned an undergraduate degree in biology in 1929 and a graduate degree in zoology in 1932.

Upon the death of her father, Rachel became the breadwinner of the family. She took a job at the US Bureau of Fisheries, later known as the Fish and Wildlife Service and spent fifteen years with the service, rising to the post of editor in chief of publications. In her spare time, she wrote environmental articles for magazines, as well as books including the award winning , The Sea Around Us. In all her writings, Rachel made the point that human beings are a part of nature and not the masters of nature.

In 1944, she proposed an article to Reader’s Digest, regarding the effects of DDT on the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. Reader’s Digest turned it down as being too unpleasant. Nevertheless, her concern for the use of pesticides continued. After World War II, the use of pesticides to control fire ants, mosquitoes, and other insects exploded. She worried and rightfully so, that the chemical industry had not done the research to determine the long term effects of synthetic chemicals. After six years of research her greatest work, Silent Spring, was published in three installments in New Yorker magazine. It was read by President John F. Kennedy. The book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962, and was an instant best seller. In May of 1962, the President’s Science Advisory Committee issued a report on the uses of pesticides, upholding Rachel’s warnings.

1963 was a busy year for Rachel. In April, CBS Reports with Eric Sevareid aired “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson”, and had 15 million viewers. In June, Senate hearings were held. Rachel testified calling for limits on the number of pesticides in use and expected criticism from the billion dollar chemical industry. However, the shy scientist didn’t expect the personal attacks from the industry as well as from those within the government. She was called a hysterical woman and a communist. Threats of lawsuits followed as well.
In November, 1963, the Mississippi River fish kill validated her concerns, with the cause traced to the pesticide, Endrin. In December, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Clean Air Act , with Rachel witnessing the signing.

More actions to protect the environment followed. In 1964, the Wilderness Act was passed, and in 1966, the Endangered Species Act which included the bald eagle, brought to the brink of extinction by DDT.  In 1970, President Richard Nixon founded The Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Water was enacted in 1972. And finally, again in 1972, DDT was banned from use in the United States.

Sadly, Rachel wasn’t able to celebrate the sweeping changes brought about by her courageous stand for the protection of the natural environment and public health.  Rachel was  actually fighting two battles, a public one against the chemical industry and degradation of the environment, and a private one against breast cancer. She lost her private battle on April 11, 1964.

According to Rachel Carson, the heart of the problem relating to the preservation of the environment in the twentieth century was human hubris and financial self- interest. She is quoted as saying, “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway, on which we progress with great speed but at its end lies, disaster. The other fork in the road, the one less traveled by, offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

The battle to protect the environment is  still being waged. Please refer to a February, 2019, article relating to chlorpyrifos, a banned pesticide,  allowed to be used by current  EPA officials.  Hubris and financial self-interest should not determine the safety of the American consumer’s diet and  the health of the environment on which all depend.  Address concerns to  elected representatives and make organic consumer choices.  Take the other fork in the road. Be a Rachel!

Learn more about Rachel Carson, an American heroine, by clicking here.