Saturday, February 17, 2007


Rachel Carson was an American zoologist and marine biologist. In 1936 she became only the second woman to be hired by the, then, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries for a full time professional position, as a junior aquatic biologist.

She was 29 years old and caring for an aging mother, the next year her older sister died and she became responsible for her two nieces.

She became Chief Editor of Publications with the re-named Fish and Wildlife Service in 1949. As well as her work for this agency, she was writing for herself and "The Sea around Us" was published. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks (I still have my falling apart soft cover later edition). It won the 1952 National Book Award and was made into a documentary film that won an oscar.

She then began writing full time and at the death of one of her nieces, took responsibility for the 5 year old orphan son as well as continuing to care for her 90 year old mother. She moved to the countryside and began to research pesticides especially DDT which led to her writing her most famous book, "Silent Spring". She used the book to highlight wildlife mortality with the over-use of pesticides like dieldrin, toxaphene and heptachlor also linking these to human cancers.

The book was published in 1962 to a predictable outcry. She had threats of lawsuits and was derided as an hysterical woman who would see the earth returned to the dark ages. The chemical industries, (Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid) the Agriculture Department and some media went on the attack. This was despite her repeatedly saying she was not calling for a complete ban or withdrawal of helpful pesticides, just a more responsible attitude to use and an awareness of the impact of earth ecosystems.

Halfway through the writing of the book she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she died in 1964 at age 56. She didn't live to see the banning of DDT in the U.S. in 1972.

The Rachel Carson Prize was founded in Stavanger, Norway in 1991 and is awarded to women who have made a contribution in the field of environmental sciences.

Criticism of her work never stopped as developing countries battled infectious diseases nearly eradicated by DDT. But it was the indiscriminate spraying that she disagreed with. Research now shows how quickly pests become resistant. In 2006 research done on the larvae of anopheles gambiae shows they can survive outside puddles sprayed with insecticide, in the moist or wet mud several metres from the sprayed area.

In 2002 Ronald Bailey reviewed "Silent Spring" and concluded that the classic had not aged well. You can read it at He does a nice hatchet job but I think he misses the point that science doesn't stand still and this was an amazing book for the age. It pointed the way down a road that has many side streets and it doesn't diminish her work in any way.

One of those attacking chemical companies is still making headlines, Monsanto is pushing genetically modified crops and making the pesticides to spray them.


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post, JT. Excellent.
Your penultimate paragraph is particularly well-written and insightful.

Thank you.

JahTeh said...

Honestly Kurt, what would some of these women from the 50s do in this century? Take Rosalind Franklin, that genius of crystallography and put her in front of a synchrotron and who knows what she would have accomplished.

Anonymous said...

Such women would indeed shine.
But then again, I wonder....
All over the blogosphere I've seen examples of professional women in science (especially the hard sciences) being discriminated against. Often, or perhaps usually, the discrimination is accomplished through seemingly benign means, but the result is the same.
Things have gotten better, but still not as they could be.
And oh, my, I see that Dr. Franklin had an even shorter life than Rachel Carson, succumbing to the dreaded ovarian cancer.

Andrew said...

My eyes did not glaze over. VG

Link said...

Agreed. Excellent post. Silent Spring used to be the read of my choice in the wee hours. But you've told me more about its author than I ever knew. Thank you.

JahTeh said...

I could have left out the little bits where Rachel Carson looked after her family but this was and still is a part of being a woman in science. Rosalind Franklin, as a young scientist made the decision not to marry even before the cancer. The process of gaining a PHd in science in this country is like leading a nomad existence, going from laboratory to laboratory, fighting for funding, fighting to get papers published and with a huge HECS debt always waiting to be paid not to mention the scramble to get a Post Doc position. I suppose it's like natural selection, the brightest will get through.

Andrew, I promise to post something that will make your eyes glaze over. Would you like dressed or undressed?

"Silent Spring" jolted me too, Link. I really started to read and look closely at the world because by then I had a small child. It's the same reaction people are having to Al Gore's film.

BwcaBrownie said...

and only this morning I was contemplating 'Silent Spring' as I notice how desperate the birds are in the dry dry garden, which used to be moist and full of juicy bird food.

JahTeh said...

I found little green parrots in the apple tree the other day, this was after they denuded the flowering gum across the road. I've been putting out as much bird seed and water as I can.