Science Heroes: Rachel Carson

“”Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties of the earth are never alone or weary in life. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Rachel Carson, Sense of Wonder

Rachel Carson was born in a small rural town in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1907. From an early age, Carson was an engaging and persuasive writer, creating stories of the animals on her parents’ farm. At 11 years old, she won her first award for a story that she published in St. Nicholas Magazine, a popular American children’s magazine that also touted the works of Beatrix Potter and Robert Louis Stevenson. That love of writing continued to flourish as she progressed through high school, where she graduated with honors and received a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania College for Women (now known as Chatham University). With this scholarship she intended to pursue a major in English literature to foster her creative talents in writing and interests in teaching. However, once Carson arrived at the university she quickly realized that her passion for writing was matched (or perhaps surpassed) by her love for another subject: [Marine] Biology.

A young Rachel holds a bouquet of flowers [Source].

At 19, Carson, with the help from a Biology faculty member and scientific mentor, Mary Skinker, made the courageous choice to switch majors from English to Biology. This was a very big move, because at the time Biology was mainly a male-dominated field. Indeed, when Carson chose to enter the Biology department there were only two other female students in the entire program! Although this likely presented many barriers for Carson as a woman, it did not seem to show as she went on to be very successful in her pursuits of biology. This included obtaining a summer scholarship in 1927 for conducting research at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, as well as a scholarship from Johns Hopkins University to pursue an MA degree in Zoology. 

The Pennsylvania College for Women yearbook picture of Carson, 1928 [Source].

During her master’s, Carson studied the developmental biology and embryology of catfish (phylogenetic order: Siluriformes). After receiving her MA she intended to follow her mentor (and now, dear friend) Mary Skinker to Johns Hopkins University to continue her education and pursue her PhD in Marine Biology. In 1932 Carson and her family, which consisted of her mother, ailing father and older divorced sister with her two young children, moved to Baltimore so she could pursue her PhD. However, as the financial effects of the Great Depression grew, and as the only provider in the home, Carson was eventually forced to drop-out of graduate school in 1934 to provide support for her family. Just one year later, her father passed away which was quickly followed by her sister two years after, causing Carson to assume responsibility for her mother and two young nieces. With desperation to find steady and reliable work, Carson pursued junior specialist jobs with the US Department of Fisheries, wanting to apply her biological knowledge to public interest projects such as food security and environmental conservation

The writing skills of her youth certainly came to her aid in these governmental positions, as she was eventually hired to write part-time features and devise a short radio series focused on marine life titled “Romance Under the Waters”. Her radio series success landed her a full-time position as a junior aquatic biologist, becoming only the 2nd woman to be hired at the time. As she became more familiar with her position over the years, Carson began to expand her writing experience to include freelance writing for various publications including the Baltimore Sun and The Atlantic Monthly. Eventually, her writing career blossomed and Carson left her government position altogether to become a full-time writer where she could continue to meld her love of writing and biology. She published several books, including popular titles such as “Under the Sea-Wind” (Carson’s personal favorite) and “The Sea Around Us”; both of which pulled readers beneath the salty waves in order to cultivate an intimate fascination for marine creatures and the science behind learning about them.

Rachel Carson conducting marine biology research in the Florida Keys with her colleague at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bob Hines. Bob was also the illustrator of some of Carson’s best-selling books, including “The Edge of the Sea” [Source].

30 years of writing about the ecosystems that inspired her ultimately prepared her to boldly speak out against the use of harmful pesticides and write her most famous book by far: “Silent Spring”. This book is considered a seminal work of environmental writing, and is thought to have heavily influenced the modern environmental movement. To prepare her manuscript, Carson hired an assistant to help her gather research on the effects of synthetic insecticides on people and the environment.  “Silent Spring” is a great demonstration of early science communication; Carson crafted an approachable story that explained complex chemistry concepts in a way that all readers could find understandable. She outlines how the usage of biocides such as DDT can kill organisms in the environment indiscriminately and cause cascading effects throughout the ecosystem while also negatively affecting human health. When the book was published in 1961, it gained a lot of national attention due to the claims Carson was making against the use of pesticides and their link to causing cancer in humans. Although several groups supported Carson’s book, including President John F. Kennedy and his cabinet, Carson’s claims about the devastating and widespread effects weren’t truly validated until a few years later when millions of fish were killed from suspected pesticide exposure in the Mississippi River (original NYT article here). Following this tragic event, many environmental regulations were passed to protect the integrity of the environment and the human communities that rely on it, including the Clean Air Act and the Wilderness Act

My personal tattered copy of Silent Spring, given as a gift to me from my partner over a decade ago after I had read (and loved) this book for the very first time [Photo Credit: Josie Hubbard].

Carson laid the crucial scientific groundwork for the recognition of pervasive environmental issues across the United States. Despite being a minority as a woman in the male-dominated field of Biology, and despite extreme financial hardship (both personally and systemically), Carson used her scientific knowledge, writing talent, and love of nature to forge a path as an iconic environmental leader. She boldly expressed her opinions as an extension of her beliefs in the intrinsic value of nature and our innate responsibility as humans to uphold and protect its integrity. In fact, Carson was so steadfast in her beliefs that she testified before a Senate hearing in 1963 to request a limit on the number of pesticides in current use. Less than a year later, she lost her long battle with breast cancer at the young age of 58. Ironically, Carson died from a condition that was commonly caused by the chemicals that she was fighting to protect the public from. 

Due to Carson’s impressive level of dedication to environmental issues, there are several organizations that live on in memory of Carson and her sustainable environmentalism, including the Rachel Carson Institute of Chatham University and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. As an ode to her time served in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a reserve was named after Carson near her summer home in Maine a few years following her death in 1969, known as the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. However, perhaps my favorite example of her legacy is that the Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania have developed a badge specifically to honor Carson. To earn this badge the girl scout must learn about Carson’s work, research their impact on the environment, and devise a way to make their own environment more sustainable (see the requirements for the badge here). By working through the five steps of the badge, scouts foster a deeper appreciation for nature and develop a connection to the land that Carson cherished and fought for so deeply. In this way, Carson stands as a SciHero that all kids (and adults) can look up to and strive for.

The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge pictured in the summer and winter months [Source].


WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?

Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column on Animal Adventure Thursdays for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers.

Read a biography of Rachel Carson by Linda Lear “Witness for Nature”.

Listen to the New Yorker Radio Hour for their special on Rachel Carson.

Watch a PBS documentary on Rachel Carson.

Check out the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society – an international interdisciplinary education and research institution for the environment and humanities. As a nonprofit organization located in Munich, Germany, this institute hosts scholars from all over the world to conduct research on issues pertaining to sustainability.


WANT TO READ RACHEL CARSON’S WORKS?

Carson, R.L. (1941). Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Carson, R.L. (1951). The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carson, R.L. (1955). The Edge of the Sea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Carson, R.L. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin

Carson, R.L. (1965). The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper and Row.

Carson, R.L. (1998). Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press.


Author’s Note:

I was first introduced to Rachel Carson in high school when I stumbled across Silent Spring in my local library. Although I expected the book to be rather dry since it was centered around environmental pesticides, I found it surprisingly engaging and exciting to read. It was clear that Carson had honed experience in narrative, as the book read more like a fictional piece than a technical one. In addition to the fluency with which she placed complex environmental issues on the page, I was impressed with the conviction behind her claims. This was a woman of opinions, not to be silenced or ignored. It was then that Rachel Carson became one of my earliest Science Heroes, teaching me that critical thinking and beautiful prose can be powerful weapons in the fight for science and that women can overcome any and all barriers if their convictions are strong.

Josie Hubbard is a 4th year PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group (ABGG) at UC Davis. She studies how animals adapt to human-dominated environments, using monkeys in Asia as a model system. She conducts experiments with free-ranging monkeys to test the effects of urbanization on their problem solving abilities. As a co-chair for the ABGG Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Josie wrote this piece with help from her colleagues on the committee and in accordance with our principles of community to promote diversity within our graduate group.

Additional References:

Michals, D. (2021, April 17). Rachel Carson. National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/rachel-carson

Lear, L. (2021, April 17). Timeline. The life and legacy of Rachel Carson. Rachelcarson.org

Chatham University Jennie King Mellon Library. (2021, April 17). Chatham University Archives Collection on Rachel Carson. https://www.chatham.edu/host/library/carson/collection/index.html

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2021, April 17). Rachel Carson Biography. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson/about/rachelcarson.html

Library of Congress. (2021, April 17). Rachel Carson: A Resource Guide. https://guides.loc.gov/rachel-carson/introduction

Cover photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service [Source].

[Edited by Karli Chudeau]

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