Carson, Rachel (1907 - 1964)

Genre: Non-Fiction - Scholarly

Rachael Carson -- biologist, environmentalist, nature writer, and crusader -- was born the youngest of three children in Springdale, PA (a small town near Pittsburgh) and she died in Silver Spring, MD. From the mid-1940s, she and her mother spent summers near West Southport, Maine and Carson built a summer cottage along Maine's Sheepscot River in 1952.

As a child, Carson was always interested in nature and being outside, but was also an avid reader and writer from an early age. In 1918, at the age of 10, she was published in the St. Nicholas Literary Magazine for children, with a story called "A Battle in the Clouds."

Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women at Pittsburgh (now Chatham College) on a small scholarship, majoring first in English, then switching to biology. She graduated magna cum laude in 1928. She attended a six-week summer session at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, at Cape Cod, then went on to study genetics and marine zoology at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her M.A. in 1932 in marine zoology. She taught at Hopkins and at the University of Maryland for a few years, then joined what became the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., first as a part-time scriptwriter for a science radio show called "Romance Under the Seas." In 1936, she was hired as a junior aquatic biologist.

The Baltimore Sun published a series of her articles on various aspects of the sea -- written to supplement her teaching income -- and her first major publication, an article entitled "Undersea," was published in Atlantic Monthly in Sept. 1937. It had been developed by Carson as an introduction to the print brochures based on the "Romance Under the Seas" shows.

During WWII, Carson's responsibility at Fish & Wildlife was to promote fish as an alternative to foods in short supply because of the war. Between 1943 and 1945, she wrote four pamphlets describing over 70 fish and shellfish. Extremely successful, these booklets served as information sources for newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts throughout the country.

Carson served as editor-in-chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service's publications from 1949 to 1952, when she was able -- because of the success of her book The Sea Around Us -- to resign from the Service to devote more time to writing. For her contributions she was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Department of the Interior.

In the early 1950s, Carson became friends with Dorothy Murdoch Freeman (1898-1978) who was an administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Services. Carson's Maine home was built near the home of Freeman and her family. The two women exchanged many letters over a twelve-year period, some of which are now published.

Silent Spring, her fourth book, was first serialised in The New Yorker and immediately drew the wrath of the chemical industry. Carson was accused of being a Communist by Velsicol Chemical Company, which threatened to sue her publisher. The New York Times review of the book, titled "There's Poison All Around Us Now," appeared on September 23, 1962. The controversy around the book -- which warned the public of the hazards of pesticide misuse and abuse -- led to a federal investigation into the misuse of pesticides and resulted in lengthy Congressional hearings in 1963.

Carson died in Spring 1964 of breast cancer that had been diagnosed in 1960. In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, located in Wells, Maine -- a 4,600-acre refuge that stretches from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth -- was dedicated in June 1964 in her memory. The refuge consists primarily of coastal salt marsh with habitat for more than 250 bird and mammal species.

Selected Bibliography

  • Under the Sea Wind (1941)
  • The Sea Around Us (1951) received the National Book Award in 1952, among many other awards.
  • The Edge of the Sea (1955)
  • Silent Spring (1962)
  • The Sense of Wonder (published posthumously in 1965)
  • Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964 (1995) edited by Martha Freeman.

Selected Links