Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
Johns Hopkins 
     Magazine Home

APRIL 2000


With Silent Spring, Rachel Carson forever changed the way we see our relationship to the natural world.
Opening photo courtesy Ferdinand Hamburger Jr. Archives
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Advocacy

· · · · · · · · · · · ·
The Voice That Couldn't
Be Silenced

By Rhonda Mullen
Photo courtesy of Shirley Briggs

"We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf–earthworm–robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life--or death--that scientists know as ecology."
-- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

It was a subject that for Rachel Carson (MS '32) would not go away: the widespread use of pesticides and the resulting harm to the natural world.

A writer and marine biologist, Carson spent years pitching stories on the subject to national magazines, which turned her down cold. She even solicited E. B. White to write such an article, hoping his prestige at The New Yorker could find it a publication spot.

In the end, it fell to Rachel Carson to write about this invisible threat to humans and the environment. During four years of arduous work, her writing on the damaging effects of pesticides on nature grew to book length. When she was finished with Silent Spring, published in 1962, Carson had created a forceful argument against the irresponsible and widespread use of pesticides. And even more, she had brought issues of the environment into our collective social and political consciousness. Environmental activism was born.

With her expertise in crafting a story and her reputation as a respected scientist, Carson was an ideal person to write such a landmark book. Soon after leaving Johns Hopkins, where she studied English and zoology as an undergraduate and earned her master's degree in zoology in 1932, she took a job as a junior aquatic biologist at the agency that would become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There, she spent her days writing government publications aimed at educating the general public. In her free time, she wrote her own eloquent articles about the ocean. In 1941, she published Under the Sea-Wind, which she later identified as her favorite among her books, and in 1951, she won acclaim with The Sea Around Us. This lyrical account explored the origins and geological aspects of the sea. It captured the John Burroughs Medal and the National Book Award, and sold more than 200,000 copies its first year in print.

Carson had proved herself a master of language and science, and with the success of her second book she was able to retire from her government job to devote herself full time to writing. At this point in her career, she had her choice of writing assignments. Yet instead of embarking on another account of the natural world, she turned to the daunting and controversial subject of agricultural chemicals. Carson had seen example after example of how pesticides were quietly and steadily wreaking irreparable harm on the environment, ushering in an age of poisons. She wrote to a friend, "There would be no peace for me if I kept silent."

Throughout Silent Spring, Carson illuminated the interdependence and fragile interrelationships in ecology. "Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships," she wrote, "but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place."

The country's wholesale embracing of potent pesticides, such as DDT, disregarded these consequences, Carson argued in Silent Spring. Her book was packed with examples, including this one: Two days after the Canadian government embarked on spraying DDT to save its forests from the spruce budworm, dead and dying fish littered the Miramichi River. The salmon that had come there to spawn had nothing to eat, the stream insects having been annihilated. DDT also took its toll on songbirds, she showed, by weakening their eggshells and drastically threatening their populations

Carson's indictment in Silent Spring brought immediate results. Although chemical companies attempted to discredit the book, the public heard Carson's message. The book sold out in record numbers and was translated for distribution in Europe, Scandinavia, Brazil, Japan, and Israel. President John F. Kennedy instructed a special panel of his Science Advisory Committe to study pesticides, and the group's report validated Carson's findings. Her advocacy eventually led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, which eventually banned the agricultural use of most chlorinated hydrocarbons, including DDT, aldrin, and dieldrin.

According to TIME, nearly 40 years after the publication of Silent Spring, the book "is still regarded as the cornerstone of the new environmentalism." Although she died in 1964, the woman who couldn't remain silent speaks on.