Rachel Carson — writer, scientist, and ecologist — grew up in the rural river town of Springdale, PA. She graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Lab, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins in 1932.
During the Depression, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries hired Carson to write radio scripts. She supplemented her income by writing feature articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun.
In 1936, she began a 15-year career in the federal service as a scientist and editor and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and edited scientific articles.
In her free time, Carson turned her government research into lyric prose, first as an article "Undersea" (1937, for the Atlantic Monthly), and then in a book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941). In 1952, she published her prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us, which was followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955. Carson resigned from government service in 1952 to devote herself to her writing.
Carson wrote several other articles designed to teach people about the wonder and beauty of the living world, including "Help Your Child to Wonder," (1956) and "Our Ever-Changing Shore" (1957). Embedded within all of her writing was the view that human beings were one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly.
Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II, Carson reluctantly changed her focus in order to warn the public about the long term effects of misusing pesticides. In Silent Spring (1962), she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world.
Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment.
Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all of its creatures.
© Linda Lear, 1998, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997).
Photo of Carson from Lear/Carson Collection, Connecticut College.
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