The Sea Around Us, 1951
The Edge of the Sea, 1955
Silent Spring, 1962
The Sense of Wonder, 1965
Always Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964, 1995
Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson, 1998
Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life, 1941
The biologist Rachel Louise Carson is primarily known as the author of Silent Spring, an exposé of the effects of chemical pesticides on human health and the environment that became a seminal work in the crusade for ecological awareness. Carson spent much of her childhood outdoors on her family’s land, where she was encouraged by her mother to develop an awareness of the natural world. She also loved books and from her earliest childhood assumed that she would be a writer. At the age of eleven, she published an essay in the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. Intending to major in English, Carson enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women. Halfway through her junior year, however, her fascination with the natural sciences led her to change her major to biology. After graduating magna cum laude in 1928, she went on to gain an M.A. in zoology from The Johns Hopkins University in 1932.
Carson found employment with the United States Bureau of Fisheries, where she wrote and edited books and radio scripts. To supplement her income, she also published freelance articles. The acceptance of an article by The Atlantic prompted her to write a novel, Under the Sea-Wind, a narrative of sea and shore life told from the points of view of a shore bird, a mackerel, and an eel. Although sales were disappointing, the book earned an enthusiastic response from the scientific community.
Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, is a scientific examination of the ocean’s development, features, and inhabitants. This best-selling book, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction, launched Carson on the road to fame. In her acceptance speech, Carson stated that there is no such thing as a separate literature of science, since the aim of science is to discover and illuminate the truth, which is the aim of all literature. Throughout her writing career, Carson pursued this aim with a commitment to simplicity of expression and avoidance of technical jargon. She said, “My relation to technical scientific writing has been that of one who understands the language but does not use it.”
In 1952, Carson resigned from the Fish and Wildlife Service to focus solely on writing. In 1955, she published The Edge of the Sea, a guide to the tidal zones of the eastern seaboard of the United States. The book was positively received by critics, who remarked on Carson’s sensitive use of poetic devices such as rhythm and imagery and hailed her as a nature writer in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau. The book’s commercial success enabled Carson to realize her dream of owning a summer house by the sea. In 1953, she bought land in West Southpost, Maine, and built a cottage on the shore only feet from the high-tide line. In 1956, Carson wrote an article for Woman’s Home Companion called “Teach Your Child to Wonder,” which was republished after her death as the book The Sense of Wonder.
The roots of Carson’s most famous book, Silent Spring, go back at least to 1945, when she wrote a prophetic letter to Reader’s Digest suggesting an article about the dangers of the insecticide DDT, which was being used liberally in the pest control programs of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She dropped the subject until 1957, when a friend wrote a letter to the Boston Herald detailing the horrific effects of aerial spraying of DDT over her land for the purpose of “mosquito control.” Carson, feeling that a book exposing the dangers of chemical insecticides was needed, tried to interest others in taking on the project. Eventually she realized that she herself had to write it.
In Silent Spring, Carson examines how humans, animals, plants, the soil, and the earth’s food and water supplies have been affected by toxic chemicals in the twentieth century, and she establishes a link between these chemicals and the incidence of cancer in humans. She recommends more research into natural biological pest controls.
Silent Spring was serialized in The New Yorker in 1962 and caused a storm of controversy. Predictably, there was a violent reaction from the agricultural chemical industry, which responded with a massive campaign to portray Carson as prejudiced, scientifically unqualified, and hysterical. Chemicals, they said, were necessary to humanity’s survival; without them, insects would inherit the earth.
Carson stayed out of the fray, allowing her book to speak for itself. Other scientists, including the Science Advisory Committee appointed by President John F. Kennedy, substantiated her findings. Within a decade of publication, the book was hailed as having altered the course of history by changing people’s thinking about nature.
Carson died of cancer in 1964. The Nature Conservancy, a major beneficiary of her will, is preserving parts of the Maine coast known as the Rachel Carson Seashore, and the Department of the Interior named a wildlife refuge there in her honor. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her services to the environmental movement.