Friday, April 1, 2016

Biologist Rachel Carson

Photo by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee
Rachel Carson was a renowned marine biologist, writer, and environmentalist who was the first to alert the world to the dangers of DDT, and is credited with launching the contemporary environmental movement.

Rachel was born on May 27th, 1907 in the small rural town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of three children and became familiar with nature and wildlife by exploring the streams and forests around her 65-acre farm.

From an early age Rachel had a love of writing, and at 11 her first story was published in a local magazine for young writers. She completed high school in 1925 at the top of her class, then entered Pennsylvania College for Women as an English major. She switched to biology after meeting a biology teacher that impressed her immensely, however, and after graduation she was awarded a scholarship to complete her graduate work in biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Rachel taught at the University of Maryland for five years before joining the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1936. By then she had already been working part-time for the bureau in the creation of seven-minute radio segments on marine life called "Romance Under the Waters," and had submitted articles to magazines and journals regarding conservatism and the importance of considering the "forces of destruction" and the impact humans were creating on the surrounding ecosystems.

As a junior aquatic biologist, Rachel frequently toured the Chesapeake Bay region and spoke with conservation groups and commercial plants in an effort to get a full understanding of the different forces and interests in the area. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, was published in 1941 and was remarkable in its ability to present intricate scientific material in a way that was at once poetic, intimate, and mysterious.

In 1943 Rachel was promoted to aquatic biologist at the newly created U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She continued publishing articles for the American public, such as her series "Conservatism in Action," and "Food from the Sea," where she again demonstrated her skill at presenting important ecological concepts in ways that were engaging and accessible. She was moved to the position of editor-in-chief of all Fish and Wildlife Service publications, where she reviewed manuscripts, oversaw the library and its staff, wrote speeches, and prepared congressional testimonies for Fish and Wildlife Services personnel.

In 1951 Rachel published her second book, The Sea Around Us. It was remarkably successful and remained on the New York Times' best-seller list for 81 weeks. It would be translated into 32 languages. The financial success of the book let Rachel resign from the Service in 1952, and she spent all of her time researching and writing. In 1956 she published The Edge of the Sea.

In both her second and third books, Rachel explored the sea's plant and animal life with her trademark weaving of both science and poetry, but also introduced a new concept: that as humans, we are not only witnesses to it but responsible for it, and that the sea is deserving not only of our understanding and respect, but our compassion and protection.

At the Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel had long understood the negative impact that pesticides were having on the environment, and those concerns were amplified by the introduction of DDT in 1945. As their job was to study fish and wildlife, biologists were the first to see evidence of disruptions in the environment, and Rachel documented this in her studies.

At the same time, Rachel was fighting a more personal battle, one that she felt might be tied to the environment as well. In 1950 she had a tumor removed from her left breast and over the course of her studies, had grown increasingly interested in a possible link between exposure to pesticides and cancer. By late 1959 she wrote the following to her editor: "In the beginning I felt the link between pesticides and cancer was tenuous and at best, circumstantial; now I feel it is very strong indeed."

Rachel dedicated herself to her research full-time while also tending to her ailing grandnephew, whom she had adopted, but her work was often interrupted by her own health issues. In 1960, she had two tumors removed from her left breast, and in 1961 she discovered a mass that was diagnosed as cancer. She began radiation treatment, all the while trying to keep her medical condition a secret for fear that readers would doubt her objectivity, particularly in the material where she tied exposure to pesticides to cancer.
Ad in Cosmopolitan Magazine for DDT Flea Powder, August 1947
Still, as she considered the wide use of pesticides and their introduction to the environment in large volumes and with complete disregard to their effects on the health of humans, animals, and the environment, she knew she could not keep it to herself. "Knowing what I do," she wrote to a friend, "there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent."

Rachel was also aware of potential controversy within the agricultural community (which relied on DDT to boost crop production) but seeing that no-one else was coming forward,  Rachel stepped forward herself and published her most influential work, Silent Spring.

In this work, Rachel documented in minute detail the damage done to our ecosystems when pesticides are used and presented data gathered from years of study in the U.S. and Europe with the help of Shirley Briggs, another former Fish and Wildlife Service member who provided documentation of DDT research previously not published.

As anticipated, her book evoked a firestorm of attacks not only towards her work, but towards her personally. While in the book Rachel did not recommend that pesticides be banned, but rather that research be conducted to ensure they are used safely and that alternatives be found, the pesticide industry launched a campaign to discredit her. One biochemist with American Cyanamid called her a "fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature," and the general counsel went as far as to evoke cold-war language by suggesting she was motivated by "sinister influences" so that U.S. food production would be reduced.

The evidence and arguments in Silent Spring were persuasive however, and in 1962 President John F. Kennedy appointed a committee to study the use of pesticides, citing the book. Over the next two years,   various government agencies would call for more oversight regarding the use of pesticides, and a reduction of their use.

In the 18 months following the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel fought the cancer that was overtaking her body and reserved her strength for public appearances that she felt would have the most impact. She offered Congressional testimony on the use of pesticide and made a television appearance in 1964, but would die later that year from cancer and its complications. Rachel died on April 14 at the age of 56.

In the 1960s, events such as the California oil spill and the use of such chemicals as agent orange in the Vietnam War built on the public's awareness of the negative ways that humans were impacting the environment. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, and in 1972 DDT was banned from use in the United States.

Today, Rachel Carson's work and the publication of Silent Spring are widely credited by scientists as being the pivotal moment that the environmental movement began in the United States.

Sources:

Rachel Carson Biography, Biography.com
Rachel Carson Biography, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, RachelCarson.org
From Calm Leadership, Lasting Change, The New York Times

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