“Why is a spinster with no children so concerned about genetics?” – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson speaking about author Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson was not only a brilliant scientist, she was a gifted writer, two talents that helped to change the way Americans viewed the environment. Her first bestseller came in 1951 with, The Sea Around Us. Nine of its chapters appeared in The New Yorker, which helped to gain her a popular following outside of the scientific community. In fact, the book sold more than 250,000 copies.
Silent Spring, however, would not only bring populace attention, it would incite an assault on her character. Prior to its publication, some of the contents appeared in the June 16, 1962 issue of The New Yorker. Chemical companies like DuPont, which manufactured 2,4D for DDT and Velsicol Chemical Company which produced chlordane and heptachor, might never have even taken notice of Carson, after all, she wasn’t the first to question DDT’s affect on humans and wildlife. Carson was different. She had no university backing or corporation financing her research. She was not the typical scientist releasing technical jargon that the public might have trouble understanding. She was an award-winning writer, that just happened to be a physical scientist and as the critics tried to diminish her science, well-respected leaders started to come forward to offer their similar opinion and research. And then, prior to the publication of Silent Spring she gained a surprising springboard of attention when the drug thalidomide, once used to help women with morning sickness in pregnancy, was found to have caused debilitating birth defects. The American public was now listening and the chemical manufacturers knew it.
According to the EPA, the peak use of DDT was in 1959 when “nearly 80 million pounds were applied.”
Consequently, the lawyers got involved, threatening to sue Carson’s publisher if the book was released (it was later named to the Book-of-the-Month Club). American Cyanamid, the company manufacturing the Sabin Polio Vaccine, even spoke out against her via two of the company’s chemists Robert White-Stevens and Thomas Jukes.
According to Wikipedia’s profile on Carson, White-Steven’s referred to her as “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” [can you imagine that being a negative in today’s culture?] He even stated, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”
In the end, it didn’t really take too much convincing that dumping tons of DDT to kill insects using poison, would obviously have an affect on the birds, trees, foliage and even humans.
What I love most about Rachel Carson’s life is that her critics focused so easily on her “spinster” lifestyle and didn’t even attack her science. She was labeled hysterical by many of her critics, “…Miss Carson has taken up her pen in alarm and anger.” Yet, to really destroy her, many believed they would get further discussing her personal life, than her research, questioning her single lifestyle and a long-term friendship with Dorothy Freeman, a married woman with children. It was Freeman’s son that gave her The Sea Around Us as a gift. Freeman became an instant fan and a lifelong friendship blossomed.
On June 14, 1972, William D. Ruckelshaus, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, issued an order cancelling nearly all remaining Federal registrations of DDT products. On January 1, 1973, DDT was banned permanently from general use, 10 years after Silent Spring was published.
Today, Silent Spring enjoys the same prominence as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle, both books that incited change and she remains one of America’s most important literary figures and is credited with moving the environment to the forefront of American thinking.