Rachel Carson

In a week which has seen a jury in California award more than $2bn to a couple who said the weedkiller Roundup was responsible for their cancer, it seems appropriate to feature Rachel Carson. In truth, I can’t understand why we haven’t featured her before.

Rachel Carson studied the harmful effects of chemicals, pesticides in particular, on the environment and it is not an exaggeration that the publishing of her work “Silent Spring” kick started the modern environmental movement.

Rachel Carson was born in 1907, the youngest child in family of three and grew up in Pennsylvania. She graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and in 1932 received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University .

In the mid 1930’s Carson’s sister died, leaving two young girls to be brought up by Carson and her mother. This change in her personal circumstances, the need to support the family, since her father had died around the same time, led to her writing some radio programmes on marine life. In 1952 she published a prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us, and in 1955 The Edge of the Sea was published. These books made Carson famous both as a naturalist and as writer making science for the public.

After World War II, she became increasingly concerned by the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and the the long-term effects of their misuse. In 1958 she received letters from a friend describing the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT upon a bird sanctuary. This concern, combined with several years of detailed research, resulted in her writing the Silent Spring (1962) in which she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government. As a result she was attacked by the chemical industry and by some in government as an alarmist, but she continued to speak out and remind us that we are part of the natural world sand as vulnerable as the rest of the ecosystem. Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment. The committee endorsed her position and it’s finding s led to legislation banning the use of DDT.

She died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer.

In her own words:

“It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisons and biologically potent chemicals into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons , without their consent and often without their knowledge. I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no investigation of their effect on the soil, water, wildlife and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.” Silent Spring, 1962

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