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Mother of the Movement: Rachel Carson and the fight against pesticides

Updated: May 6, 2020

By Keevan K

Rachel Carson was a biologist and nature writer who had a pronounced effect on Western science and the environmental movement. Her major accomplishments come from the book she wrote, Silent Spring. Silent Spring, published in 1962, resulted in major legal changes in regards to chemical pesticides. Not only did it change the environment legally, but it also was part of the reason that the US Environmental Protection Agency was created. Silent Spring brings awareness of pesticides' effects on the world. DDT, a specific pesticide, was banned nationally largely because of Silent Spring.

Carson testified on pesticides before a Senate subcommittee after her book was published, and she started focusing on the dangers of pesticides. She was 56 and in a severe stage of breast cancer, but still fighting for legal change in regards to pesticides and climate. Not only was Carson practically dying, but her pelvis was deeply fractured, causing her to have trouble getting to her seat at the Congressional panel. A democrat from Alaska said to Carson that her writing changed the course of history through a book, which is incredibly rare in mankind. Silent Spring truly changed the environmental movement forever.

Just like Carson, her mother loved nature. She grew up in Springdale, Pennsylvania. When she was only ten years old, she became a writer for the Children’s magazines. She then went off to study at what is now known as Chatham University, and then later she got her Master’s degree in zoology in 1932 at Johns Hopkins. She also studied at the oceanographic institute at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Carson was the second woman hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries. She was hired in 1936 and stayed until 1951. She was then promoted to the Editor-in-Chief for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1941, she wrote Under the Sea Wind, and in 1951, she wrote The Sea Around Us. Through praise worthy-work, Carson earned a national science writing-prise, a National Book Award, and a Guggenheim grant.

Her book’s sales enabled her to move to Southport Island, Maine in 1953 to focus on her writing. In 1957, her niece died and Carson adopted her son and moved to Silver Spring, Maryland to help her old mother. Carson then wrote Silent Spring inspired by a letter from a friend in Massachusetts about the loss of birdlife due to pesticide spraying. It focuses on pesticides’ effects on ecosystems but also talks about the human impact, including cancer.

Additionally, she accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims. Many chemical companies discredited her by claiming she was a Communist or hysterical woman. Many organizations placed negative ads during the CBS Reports TV special on April 3, 1963, called, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” There were still about 15 million viewers.

Carson’s research was validated by President John F. Kennedy by his science Advisory Committee Report, making pesticides a major public issue. Carson received medals from the American Geographical Society, the National Audubon Society and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Unfortunately, Carson died of breast cancer in 1964. In 1980, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her homes are considered national historic landmarks and various awards bear her name.

In 1965, the Rachel Carson Council was founded. The organization was started as the national environmental organization to carry Carson’s work after her death. The council underscores the connection between racial and economic inequality and climate change. It connects traditional environmental organizing, national advocacy, and the climate justice movement. The Rachel Carson Council additionally tries to reduce income inequality in the communities most affected by climate change by trying to create green jobs.


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