Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Rachel Carson

Jul 26, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Rachel Carson

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder- we live in a beautiful world – and someone who has worked tirelessly to maintain it was Rachel Carson. Tell us about her early childhood – and where she was born and her early environment. 

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907 on a farm outside of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Reading consumed much of her time during her early childhood. Particularly a fan of St. Nicholas Magazine, Carson submitted a short story to that publication at the age of ten and had it accepted. During her teen years, Carson would have a number of other stories published by St. Nicholas Magazine. During her teenage years, Carson began to read novels. Influenced by the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville, Carson developed a keen interest in anything having to do with the ocean. These literary works undoubtedly helped influence her future in the scientific realm.  

2) Her high school and college years – what were they like and where did she do her undergraduate work? 

She started school in Springdale, but transferred to the high school in the larger community of Parnassus, Pennsylvania. Graduating first in her class in 1925, Carson then chose to attend Pennsylvania College for Women (which is known today as Chatham University). At first, Carson majored in English, but soon became a Biology major. Excelling in that subject, Carson graduated in 1929 magna cum laude. 

Accepted by Johns Hopkins University for graduate study, where she focused her research on genetics and zoology. After earning a Master’s Degree in 1932, Carson began work towards her doctorate, but her family’s economic difficulties forced her to leave Johns Hopkins in the mid-1930s. Having focused her research efforts on fish while at Johns Hopkins, Carson found employment with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries on a temporary basis. When a full-time position opened, Carson took the Civil Service examination and earned the best score. Because of her performance, she was offered the position—only the second woman that the bureau had ever hired on a full-time basis. One of her responsibilities at the bureau was to write publications, and this process provided her with a starting point for writing articles for sale to newspapers and journals. Eventually, this would lead to the publication of her first book in 1941. Titled Under the Sea Wind, it would be followed by The Sea Around Us in 1950. The success of these two books allowed Carson to leave her position at the bureau and devote herself to writing for the rest of her life.  

3) Silent Spring by Rachel Carson seems to be her outstanding work. How was it received and do you have any insights into the background of this book? 

Although it was not her area of expertise, the use of pesticides became a source of concern for Carson in the days immediately after the end of the Second World War. Especially troubling for her was an insecticide known as DDT. Despite her best efforts, Carson was not able to find anyone interested in publishing articles about her concerns. Because of this, Carson put aside her interest in the subject and instead devoted herself to writing about oceanographic matters. An event in 1957, however, brought her back to the subject. 

In that year, the U.S. government initiated a program to eliminate a pest known as the gypsy moth. As part of this effort, the government began to spray areas with DDT. This alarmed The Audubon Society’s chapter in Washington DC, and they convinced Carson to inform the American public about the inherent dangers involved in this practice. Over the next four years, Carson assembled a wealth of evidence to support her initial fears about the deleterious effects of DDT. Confident in her conclusions about DDT, Carson then wrote a manuscript based on her findings. It was published as a series of articles in The New Yorker, and then as a book titled Silent Spring in 1962. 

Initially, Carson’s book came under fierce attack for its conclusions about the dangers of DDT. Some opposed her because they doubted the scientific basis of her claims, but it seems clear that much of the criticism came from chemical companies that would suffer economically from a decrease in the use of pesticides. Gradually, however, the tide of public opinion shifted in her favor, and in 1972 the federal government ordered that the use of DDT be gradually brought to an end. Although there are still individuals who dispute her critique of DDT to this day, the vast majority of the scientific community believes that her work proved invaluable in helping the environment.  

4) What were some of her other major contributions? 

If remembered today for anything, Carson is known for Silent Spring. But as previously noted, Carson had already established herself as an author long before the publication of that book. Her works on fish and the oceans would make her noteworthy even without the publication of her most famous work.  

5) How did she spend her “twilight years” if you will? 

Sadly, even as her seminal work was being published, Carson was already battling an affliction that would lead to her death. In 1960, she had undergone a mastectomy, but unfortunately cancer remained in her system. Her doctors then tried radiation therapy, but this program did not succeed in stopping the cancer from spreading throughout her body. To make matters worse, in 1964 Carson came down with a respiratory ailment, and was diagnosed with anemia. Her system severely compromised, Carson suffered a fatal heart attack in April of that year. The woman who is largely credited with sparking the environmental movement in the United States thus passed away before her efforts began to bear fruit, but she left a legacy for a concern with nature that is still with us today. 

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