Born in 1907 to a working-class family, Rachel Carson grew up less than a mile from the American Glue Factory in Springdale, Pa. The smoke stacks from the horse abattoir were visible from her bedroom window. So perhaps it was no surprise that she cared about the environment at an early age.
Carson, who would go on to earn a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins before working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a science editor, became well-known for her nature writing. She published several best-selling books about the sea, including Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, (for which she won a National Book Award), and The Edge of the Sea. However, it was her work-related entrée to scientific research that alerted her to the long-term effects of pesticides, DDT in particular, on wildlife—a troubling phenomenon that she documented in Silent Spring.
Before the book’s publication in September of 1962, the general public had little access to scientific writing. “This was during the years after World War II, and people put science on a pedestal,” says Andy McCall, assistant professor of biology, who participated in a panel discussion with other Denison professors to celebrate the book’s contributions to their disciplines. In other words, science was something to marvel at, not something to be questioned.
Carson’s exposé turned that veneration on its head. In a New York Times article about Carson, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben said, “She was the very first person to knock some of the shine off modernity.”
Carson testified about the use of pesticides before Congress in 1963, less than a year before she died of breast cancer on April 14, 1964. “Through her book and actions, she introduced what we now call the 'modern environmental movement,’ which uses policy, informed by science, as the major tool to combat environmental issues,” says panelist Olivia Aguilar, assistant professor of environmental studies. “In fact, many have argued that her testimony to Congress helped to spur the development of the Environmental Protection Agency and its first hard-hitting policies concerning clean air and water.”
Her investigation also provided a compelling motive for research and pushed resources toward biological and chemical studies. And even after 50 years, Carson’s initial concerns continue to be relevant today. McCall says, “At that time, the public had no idea that insects could develop a resistance to pesticides. That’s a problem we’re still working on.”
James Weaver, assistant professor of English, talks about another significant legacy of Silent Spring. “One of Carson’s most noteworthy achievements was synthesizing a sometimes-dense science and distilling it for a wider popular audience.”
Environmental writing has come a long way, baby. These days the genre is filled with such authors as Terry Tempest Williams, with her memoirs about her Utah childhood and nuclear testing in the Southwest desert, and geologist and New Yorker contributor John McPhee. Clare Jen, an assistant professor of biology and women’s studies, says there’s also a less visible heritage from Carson, that of the burgeoning growth of women in the scientific field. “Between 1966 and 2008, the percentage of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees earned by women in science and engineering fields has more than doubled,” says Jen.
Jen adds, “Carson is a role model. She is an example of how those who work at the margins of a field are often the ones willing to break rank, to risk professional censure, in order to ask different questions with the aim of bettering people’s lives.”
And while we see daily headlines about struggles with insects, diseases, and other biological terrors that may affect our food supply and well-being, Carson herself gives us perspective. “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”