Rachel Carson

Meet my Earth Day superhero, Rachel Carson. Probably more than anybody else, Carson helped inspire the modern environmental movement. Here’s her story.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was born and raised in Pennsylvania and went on to earn a master’s degree in marine biology. She was employed as a scientist by the U.S. government in the 1930s and 1940s. This, mind you, at a time when women scientists were practically unheard of.

Early in her career she wrote three books about the sea (Under the Sea-wind, The Edge of the Sea, and The Sea Around Us). All three are widely acclaimed and available at WPL. Carson proved herself to be a gifted writer, able to combine scientific expertise with lyrical prose.

Then in 1962 came a game-changer moment, Carson’s Silent Spring was published. In the book she carefully presented emerging evidence of the harmful effects of DDT and other pesticides. She expressed particular outrage that pesticides were being widely used, yet without knowledge of their long-term effects and furthermore without people’s knowledge or consent.

The book caused a HUGE sensation. It topped the bestseller list, and Carson was asked to testify before Congress. It seemed like everybody was talking about the book—and demanding action. One immediate impact was that DDT was swiftly banned in the United States and most western countries. But more than that, the book helped launch the environmental movement. A new concern for the environment came into being, along with the belief that government has an obligation to protect it.

Sadly, Rachel Carson did not live to see the lasting effects of her work. While writing Silent Spring she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and died 18 months after its publication.

On this Earth Day I tip my hat in grateful acknowledgement to Rachel Carson.

— Penny D.