Carson Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rachel Carson’s description of the ecological effects of chemical pesticides evoked public debate on the hazards of these substances, triggered a wave of protest that marked the genesis of the modern environmental movement, and led to increased federal legislation to protect the natural world and its inhabitants, including humans.

Summary of Event

The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 is often cited as the landmark event that triggered the modern environmental movement. The book is the result of a rare combination of scientific training, dedicated research, and literary skill. Through her subject—contamination of the earth from unabated proliferation of chemical pesticides—Rachel Carson captured international attention as she turned a debate previously restricted to scientific circles into a public political issue, profoundly influencing the broader shaping of the environmental policy of the United States. Silent Spring (Carson) Environmentalism Hazardous materials [kw]Carson Publishes Silent Spring (Sept. 27, 1962) [kw]Silent Spring, Carson Publishes (Sept. 27, 1962) Silent Spring (Carson) Environmentalism Hazardous materials [g]North America;Sept. 27, 1962: Carson Publishes Silent Spring[07320] [g]United States;Sept. 27, 1962: Carson Publishes Silent Spring[07320] [c]Environmental issues;Sept. 27, 1962: Carson Publishes Silent Spring[07320] [c]Earth science;Sept. 27, 1962: Carson Publishes Silent Spring[07320] [c]Biology;Sept. 27, 1962: Carson Publishes Silent Spring[07320] Carson, Rachel Cottam, Clarence Ribicoff, Abraham A.

Carson’s decision to write the book came after receiving a letter from her friend, Olga Huckins Huckins, Olga of Duxbury, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1957, a state-hired airplane had crisscrossed Huckins’s two-acre wooded lot, making several aerial treatments of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane[Dic hlorodiphenyl trichloroethane] Pesticides Insecticides;synthetic poisons (DDT) for mosquito control. The following day Huckins found seven dead songbirds in her yard. Faced with another scheduled round of spraying the next summer, Huckins wrote to Carson, asking whether she knew of anyone in Washington who could help. In the course of making inquiries for her friend, Carson became alarmed at how serious the pesticide problem had become. She resolved to alert the public through a book.

This was not the first time, however, that Carson had thought of writing about DDT. She had become interested in the insecticide in the mid-1940’s while working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Two of her associates there, Clarence Cottam and Elmer Higgins Higgins, Elmer , had warned the public—in scientific papers—of the potential for DDT to harm wildlife.

Classified as a chlorinated hydrocarbon, DDT is a synthetic organic insecticide, characterized by high toxicity to a wide variety of insects and by its persistence (it does not degrade quickly in the environment). Although it was first synthesized in 1874, DDT was not found to be an effective insecticide until 1939, in time to be used during World War II to dust the clothing of soldiers for protection against typhus (spread by lice) and malaria (spread by mosquitoes).

In December, 1944, entomologists warned that DDT might kill many beneficial insects and upset nature’s economy. Ecology This concern also was the message of articles by scientists published in Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly in 1945. Carson was aware of these reports and she, too, became concerned that DDT could upset the balance of nature. Eager to supplement her income through freelance writing, she queried the editors of Reader’s Digest to see if they would be interested in an article on the new insecticide. Unfortunately, the magazine declined her offer, and for Carson the idea lay dormant until the arrival of Olga Huckins’s worrisome letter, thirteen years later. In the interim, she pursued other writing opportunities.

By the 1950’s, royalties from her books had permitted Carson to resign from the Fish and Wildlife Service to write on a full-time basis. She spent most of the period from 1958 to 1962 reviewing scientific literature and writing Silent Spring. A condensed version, about one-third of the text, was published in The New Yorker New Yorker, The (periodical) as a three-part weekly series, the first of which appeared on June 16, 1962; publication of the book followed on September 27.

Carson began her book with a fable, a description of a pleasant rural town suddenly stricken by a mysterious blight that had caused massive sickness and death among the town’s people and animals. The residents, it turned out, had brought this “silent spring” on themselves, a result of their liberal use of chemical pesticides.

The problems of the fictitious town, Carson explained, were representative of tragedies that had actually occurred in separate American communities. The remainder of her book was methodically ordered, like a legal brief, presenting scientific evidence to expose the threat posed by persistent pesticides. She described how laboratories had created hundreds of synthetic chemicals to kill pests and how the “fittest” insects had built up tolerances to these chemicals, forcing the development of increasingly lethal compounds to kill the super races that had survived and reproduced. Carson argued that chemical pesticides often caused severe consequences for wildlife and also produced long-term effects on human health.

One example made famous by Carson’s book was her account of the contamination of Clear Lake, California, a popular fishing spot located about ninety miles north of San Francisco. To eradicate a small gnat that had become a nuisance both to tourists and residents, local officials there treated the lake in 1949 with dichloro-diphenyl-dichloroethane Dichloro-diphenyl-dichloroethane[Dic hlorodiphenyl dichloroethane] (DDD), an insecticide closely related to DDT. The chemical worked well, it seemed, killing most of the gnat larvae in the bottom sediments and providing effective gnat control for years.

In 1954 another treatment became necessary. The first sign of trouble came the following winter when more than one hundred of the lake’s western grebes were found dead. More grebes died after a third application of the insecticide in 1957. Although the treatment had been highly diluted, the strongest dose was only one part insecticide to fifty million parts of water. An analysis of the fatty tissues of the grebes indicated a DDD concentration of sixteen hundred parts per million. According to Carson, the chemical had been absorbed by plankton, which were then eaten by fish. Western grebes preyed on the fish. Scientists had found an increase in the concentration of DDD with each step up the food chain. The substance did not break down and disappear in the environment as presupposed. Rather, it persisted and became more concentrated in the fat of animals as it moved up the food chain. The experience at Clear Lake, Carson suggested, made the use of chemicals (even in low concentrations) a serious risk to top predators, including humans.

Carson called attention to examples of reckless use of insecticides in large-scale programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Department of Agriculture, U.S. (USDA) to eradicate pest insects such as the gypsy moth and the fire ant. The gypsy moth had plagued New England states with occasional serious infestations for nearly a century. In 1956, the USDA initiated a program to eradicate the pest by spraying nearly one million acres with DDT. Damage from this spraying provoked citizens on Long Island to halt through litigation a second treatment scheduled for 1957. Nevertheless, a court injunction to stop the spraying was denied. After the treatment, fish, songbirds, and beneficial insects, such as bees, were found dead; leaf crops were badly damaged and vegetables were coated with spray residues; and milk was contaminated by pesticide residues on the grasses consumed by dairy cattle.

Carson described a similar experience with the fire ant, an insect that had come into the United States from South America after World War I. At worst, the fire ant had become a minor nuisance in southern states, occasionally stinging people and building large mounds that sometimes hindered farm machinery. In 1957, however, through an outpouring of press releases, newspaper stories, and films, the USDA suddenly began to portray the fire ant as a major pest, dangerous to livestock, wildlife, and people. Ignoring the protests of state conservation agencies, the USDA launched a spraying program that treated one million acres in 1958 with heptachlor and dieldrin, two of the most toxic chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides.

Through her correspondence with Cottam, who was surveying the damage, Carson learned of the consequences of the massive spraying campaign. The effects were beginning to sound familiar: Songbirds, game birds, pets, poultry, cows and other livestock and wildlife were killed; and milk was contaminated. After the spraying stopped, officials in Louisiana and Florida reported greater infestations of fire ants than when the eradication program had begun. Carson’s central argument was that the idea of eradication—the complete extermination of pest insects—was imprudent. Humans, she contended, must relinquish the notion of conquering nature. The aim, instead, should be to reduce pest damage through the safest and most practical means. She did not advocate complete abandonment of chemicals, rather an integrated approach to pest management, minimizing chemical applications and employing biological and cultural controls whenever possible.


Silent Spring was embroiled in controversy even before it was published. One Chicago-based chemical company tried to prevent its publication by threatening a lawsuit over alleged inaccuracies. Carson’s publisher, however, verified the facts in question and proceeded with publication. The company did not pursue litigation. Later, the same company was found responsible for discharging waste products into the lower Mississippi River containing residues of the pesticide endrin—a substance Carson had described as “the most toxic of all the chlorinated hydrocarbons.” Investigators from the U.S. Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. found that the chemical had caused massive fish deaths during the early 1960’s. When the investigation was made public in 1964, it reinforced Carson’s message on the environmental hazards of chemical pesticides.

In the wake of the controversy over Silent Spring, President John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;environmental policy requested a study of the pesticide issue. A panel was formed from the President’s Science Advisory Committee; in 1963, the committee released its findings in a report entitled Use of Pesticides. Use of Pesticides (government report) The report credited Carson with having alerted the public to the problem and recommended that the government warn people of the hazards as well as the benefits of pesticides. The report supported Carson’s argument that the safety of pesticides should be determined before they were allowed to be used. The report also criticized government insect eradication programs. Carson’s warning about the impact of human activity on the environment became the central theme of the new environmental movement.

After reading Carson’s book, Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff initiated Senate committee hearings to review all federal programs related to environmental pollution, including air and water pollution, contamination from radiation, and pesticides. After fifteen months of hearings, Ribicoff noted that pesticide regulation was based on the notion that control chemicals remained at the treatment site, while scientific evidence demonstrated otherwise. Pesticide residues often were highly mobile. When Carson testified before the Ribicoff committee, she explained how chemicals from aerial spraying could attach to particles of dust and drift for long distances. DDT residues were found even in Antarctica, where the substance had never been used. The committee’s 1964 report, Pesticides and Public Policy, Pesticides and Public Policy (government report) did not recommend abandonment of persistent pesticides but urged substantive federal support for research on the environmental and human health effects of pesticides.

In assessing the safety of pesticides, Carson had tried to enlarge the focus of concern about direct acute poisoning to include attention to the potential for long-term health effects, such as the risk of cancer. She succeeded in creating the conditions that would permit more research in this area. In 1969, the National Cancer Institute National Cancer Institute, U.S. released a study showing that chronic exposure to low levels of DDT could produce cancer in laboratory animals. This study later motivated officials to regard DDT as “potentially” carcinogenic to humans, an important consideration in the decision to ban the substance by 1972. Other studies showed that DDT induced reproductive failure in peregrine falcons and eagles.

By 1969, states began to take individual action against DDT. Arizona passed a one-year ban on DDT and DDD. Michigan became the first state to pass a permanent ban on DDT after the USDA had seized twenty-two thousand pounds of Lake Michigan salmon contaminated by high levels of the insecticide. Following six months of hearings initiated by the Environmental Defense Fund Environmental Defense Fund , Wisconsin also passed a law banning DDT, effective in March, 1970. Finally, in 1972, after seven months of hearings, William D. Ruckelshaus Ruckelshaus, William D. , administrator of the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, placed a federal ban on DDT.

Carson’s book had prompted calls for a complete overhaul of the nation’s environmental policies. In 1969, Congress officially recognized the importance of environmental quality when it passed the National Environmental Policy Act, a sign that change was under way. Silent Spring (Carson) Environmentalism Hazardous materials

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1989. A personal account of the life and work of Rachel Carson by her editor. Brooks includes excerpts from Carson’s early works as well as from Silent Spring. Illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. 40th anniversary ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. A landmark in environmental history. In her graceful prose, Carson provides numerous examples of the toxic effects of pesticides and encourages alternatives to chemicals. Her training as a biologist enabled her to interpret existing scientific literature and present it clearly for a broad public readership. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunlap, Thomas R. DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. A good comprehensive source for the DDT story and economic entomology, including the prelude to and aftermath of Silent Spring. Dunlap places the use of DDT and other insecticides in historical context and devotes a chapter specifically to the public policy controversy created by Carson. The book provides an account of the Wisconsin DDT hearing and the Environmental Protection Agency DDT hearing. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Amy. Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt, 2003. A brief, illustrated biography of Carson’s life and work, written especially for younger readers. Includes a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Martha, ed. Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. A wonderful collection of some 750 letters between friends—and, possibly, lovers—Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman that spans a twelve-year period. The book is edited by Freeman’s daughter and includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Frank, Jr. Since “Silent Spring.” Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1970. A journalist’s account of the controversy surrounding Silent Spring and of the developments of the pesticide debate in the years immediately following the book’s publication (and prior to the 1972 banning of DDT).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quaratiello, Arlene R. Rachel Carson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. A biography ideal for high school students. Discusses Silent Spring and also Carson’s other best-selling works: Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Edge of the Sea (1955), and The Sea Around Us (1951).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strong, Douglas H. “Rachel Carson.” In Dreamers and Defenders: American Conservationists. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. An abbreviated account of Rachel Carson and the significance of Silent Spring. Although not intended to be comprehensive, the major issues are presented in historical context. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waddell, Craig, ed. And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. An anthology of studies on the literary aspects of Silent Spring. Chapters explore Carson’s rhetorical methods and her style of writing and how they affected her message.

First Modern Herbicide Is Introduced

Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac

Congress Sets Standards for Chemical Additives in Food

Jensen Finds PCBs in Animal Tissues

DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created

Categories: History