Maine: An Encyclopedia
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Carson, Rachel

(1907-1964) biologist, environmentalist, and nature writer was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, on May 27, 1907. From the mid-1940s, she and her mother spent summers near West Southport, and in 1952 Carson built a summer cottage along the Sheepscot River.

As a child, Carson was interested in nature and, after majoring in biology at what is now Chatham College in Pittsburgh, she graduated magna cum laude in 1928. She received her M.A. in 1932 in marine zoology from Johns Hopkins, taught for a few years, then joined what became the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C.

The Baltimore Sun published a series of her articles on the sea and her first major publication, an article entitled “Undersea,” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in September 1937. After working on fisheries issues during World War II, Carson served as editor-in-chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s publications from 1949 to 1952. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Department of the Interior.

Carson’s first book, Under the Sea Wind attracted little notice when published in 1941. But her second book, The Sea Around Us (1951), was a best-seller for 86 weeks and has been translated into thirty languages. The book, originally serialized as “A Profile of the Sea,” received the National Book Award in 1952, among many others.

Silent Spring (1962), her fourth book, first serialized in The New Yorker, 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, 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 in lengthy Congressional hearings in 1963.

According to Maine’s Claim to Fame,

In 1958, Rachel received a letter from friends Smart and Olga Huckins of Duxbury, Massachusetts, whose small nature sanctuary had been devastated by air spraying of DDT, virtually wiping out all birds and beneficial insect life. Shouldn’t something be done about it? Something should, said Rachel Carson, who set about gathering material for a brief article.

Instead, that brief article became Silent Spring (1962), a book that hit the government, the public, and the powerful chemical companies, said the New York Times, “like the Biblical Plague of locusts.”

Four and a half years in the writing, backed by 55 pages of sources, Silent Spring declared simply that carelessly used pesticides were poisoning the earth. “Chemicals are the sinister and unrecognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world–the very nature of life,” she wrote. “Can anyone believe it possible to lay down such a barrage of poison on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called pesticides but biocides.”

Instantly, the chemical industry struck back with the fury of a storm at sea. Unable to match her prose, they attacked her personally: “Gross distortions of actual facts, completely unsupported by science, and absolutely absurd,” claimed one company chemist. ‘The real threat is not pesticides but hordes of insects,” charged another. “And Miss Carson is a writer, not a real scientist at all.”

But the public outcry could not be ignored. In 1962, from town meetings in Maine to the United States Congress, from Time Magazine to President Kennedy’s press conferences, people discussed and debated Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. CBS television devoted a “Special Report” to Silent Spring that was one of the most-watched programs of the decade. Even the comic strip “Peanuts” took up the cause.

In the early 1950’s, Carson became friends with Dorothy Murdoch Freeman (1898-1978), an administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Services. Carson’s Maine home was built near the Freeman’s. The two exchanged many letters over a twelve-year period, some of which are now published as Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964 (1995; edited by Dorothy Freeman’s daughter, Martha Freeman). Bates College has a collection of 543 of these letters.

Carson died on April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland, of breast cancer that had been diagnosed in 1960. The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells — a 4,600-acre refuge that stretches from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth — was dedicated in June 1964. The refuge consists primarily of coastal salt marsh with habitat for more than 250 bird and mammal species.

The Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve in New Harbor (a village in the town of Bristol) is a popular salt pond and tidal pool area along Route 32 where she came to observe the diverse marine life.

In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Adapted from the Waterboro Public Library Website at http://www.waterborolibrary.org/MWI_detail.php?authID=48 (accessed October 15, 2011)

Additional resources

Education, Maine Department of. Maine’s Claim to Fame: A Gallery of Personalities. Augusta. 1990.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. 1997. considered the definitive biography.

Lear, Linda. Ed. Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. 1998. with introduction by Linda Lear.

Waddell, Craig. Ed. And No Birds Sing. Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. 2000.

Brooks, Paul. Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work 1972/1998.

Harlan, Judith. Sounding The Alarm. 1989.

Reef, Catherine. Rachel Carson: The Wonder of Nature. 1992. Earth Keepers series.

Wadsworth, Ginger. Rachel Carson: Voice for the Earth. 1992.

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