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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Rachel Carson

The Perfect Poison in a Time of Toxins

Lena Eyen was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” - Rachel Carson [3]

1962 did not welcome Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring with open arms. Already having the disadvantage of being a female scientist in a male dominated field, Carson emerged at a time when individual and corporate profits were thriving at the expense of environmental health. As soon as her most well-known book Silent Spring hit the press, Carson created a large but partisan audience—half inspired by her poetic words and the other half enraged by her heretical thoughts.

Carson’s mother Maria was responsible for sparking her daughter’s inseparable relationship with the outdoors. Rachel, born in 1907 as the youngest of three, was easily Maria’s favorite, and the admiration was reciprocal [4]. While her father worked a part-time job at the local power plant, Carson and her mother spent hours exploring the nature around their home in Springfield, Massachusetts [4]. These early interactions with nature in the formative years of her childhood would construct the foundation for Carson’s tremendous interest and curiosity in the environment.

At 11 years old, Carson published her first piece of writing in St. Nicholas Magazine, a popular American children’s magazine focused on providing a youth-oriented platform for creative expression [5].The piece was titled, "A Battle in the Clouds,” and featured the story of an aviator killed in the line of duty [6]. Carson’s writings were immediately well-received and helped to establish a reputation that would allow her admission to the Pennsylvania College for Women, in spite of her family’s financial struggles. After initially intending to study English, Carson shifted her attention towards biology once she realized how her writing skills could be used within the field.

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” - Silent Spring [7]

Carson graduated in 1929 after completing her biology major (and gaining a strong sense of the unfavorable reception towards women in the scientific community). She spent the following summer at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts and began her masters in Zoology at Johns Hopkins in the fall. After receiving her MA in 1932, Carson’s plans to pursue a Ph.D. in marine biology were halted due to tight finances (from the Great Depression), and soon after she was forced to return home to help her family cope with the sudden passing of her father [4]. As soon as life began to normalize and Carson’s familial responsibilities were lifted, Mary Skinker (Rachel’s former professor and life-long friend) reoriented Rachel’s attention towards a job opportunity at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Carson began writing scripts for an educational public radio show with a formerly unenthused audience. Not surprisingly, she excelled [4].

Later, Carson was assigned to author a portion of a Bureau-sponsored brochure that would later be titled “Under the Sea Wind.” Her boss rejected the piece, and through a grin, advised her to instead send it to The Atlantic. Carson’s provocative question—“Who has known the ocean?”—avoided the typical anthropocentric bias that influenced many marine writers at the time [8]. As a result, her work was expanded into a full book titled The Sea Around Us, and later followed by the more well-known sequel Under the Sea Wind, which launched her writing career. At the same time, Carson was beginning her position as the second woman ever to work at the Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish and Wildlife Service).

The relatable yet passionate attitude through which Carson approached her work captured an audience completely untapped by previous activism and literature. Carson took it upon herself to bridge the gap in knowledge between nature lovers and urbanites, in hopes of formulating concern and empathy. Carson knew it was unreasonable to expect an individual who has never even seen the ocean to care about it. However, she acknowledged the utilitarian mindset that values nature for its resources and ecosystem services, while also emphasizing nature’s intrinsic value. Imagining complex ecosystems as being inherently valuable challenges the notion that nature is an endless bounty available for our use, and abuse. Carson described the balance of nature as being a series of interrelationships between living thing and their environment—”You can’t just step in with some brute force and change one thing without changing many others” [9]. This is exactly what DDT, a new and highly toxic pesticide, was beginning to do.

“Her book is more poisonous than the pesticides she condemns.” - DDT proponent [10]

In 1958, amidst her professional work, Carson received a letter from a friend in Massachusetts. She explained how a wave of deaths at a nearby bird sanctuary in Cape Cod were being linked to the spraying of a chemical called DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), and wondered if Carson was interested in investigating [4, 10]. At first, Carson was unable to get her publisher to back the project, and soon realized that she would instead have to compile her findings into her own independently sponsored book. The release of Silent Spring in 1962 ignited an unprecedented backlash. Companies using DDT immediately saw Carson as a threat to their development, and attempted to discredit her work; they claimed her “erratic emotions and mystical attachment to nature” were unfair attempts to alarm the public [4]. They deemed her research as a “biased and unscientific account by an amateur”[11].

Meanwhile, post-WWII propaganda advertised DDT (and a list of other chemicals) as having tremendous potential for domestic settings. The pesticide had the ability to combat insect-borne human diseases such as malaria, increase a farmer’s production, and allow individual homeowners to enjoy pest-free yards [10]. Conveniently left out of those advertisements were the risks that Carson would soon fight fervently to reveal.

“Each of these stories seems to me not only to challenge the imagination, but also to give us a little better perspective on human problems … The relentless struggle for survival in the sea epitomizes the struggle of all earthly life, human and non-human.” - Rachel Carson [4]

Carson’s efforts to increase transparency and education resulted in an international uprising of concerned consumers and environmental activists. Devastating to those who knew her as well as the causes she spent her life fighting for, Carson passed away in 1969 after a non-publicized but long-fought battle with cancer.  [12]. Even though her battle to uncover corporate distrust was halted prematurely, it did not stop on the day of her death. In 1972, The EPA issued a cancellation order for DDT. The public’s concern over the dangers of its improper use were legitimized by studies that correlated DDT exposure to health consequences such as tumors and reproductive effects. Today, DDT is listed as a probable human carcinogen according to U.S. and international authorities, and researchers continue to better understand the consequences of its use.

Rachel Carson’s victory set the precedent for transparency and corporate responsibility. Her eloquent words fueled a generation of citizens intrigued by (and concerned for) the wondrous nature she poetically described. One of the most influential ecocentric thinkers, Rachel Carson forced us to address the uncomfortable reality that not all human decisions are good ones.

“In nature nothing exists alone.” - Silent Spring [7]

Image Sources




[3] Carson, Rachel, and Charles Pratt. The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper & Row,  1965. Print.

[4] Lytle, Mark H. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

[5] "UFDC Home - St. Nicholas Magazine." St. Nicholas Magazine. The University of  Florida Digital Commons, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2017.

[6] Carson, Rachel. "Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library." St. Nicholas Magazine. 11th ed. Vol. 45. New York: Schribner &, n.d. 1048. Search Home. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.

[7] "Full Text Of "Silent Spring-Rachel Carson-1962"". N. p., 2017. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.

[8] Lear, Linda. "The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson - Timeline." Rachel Carson, Timeline - List. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.

[9] "Rachel Carson CBS Reports." YouTube. YouTube, 29 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Jan. 2017. Http://

[10] "DDT - A Brief History and Status." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.

[11] Lear, Linda J. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: H. Holt, 1997. Print. Page 432.   

[12] "Rachel Carson Dies Of Cancer; 'Silent Spring' Author Was 56". N. p., 2017. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.

Other Sources

"Pesticides - DDT - Rachel Carson - Silent Spring". YouTube. N. p., 2017. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.

“Rachel Carson.” Podcast. Introductions Necessary. 27 Sept. 2016

environment, hero

Rachel Carson seated at her desk at home in 1963. Rachel Carson conducting field work in 1952. [1, 2]