Silent Spring Reconsidered

Rachel Carson official USF&W photo, c. 1940

Rachel Carson official USF&W photo, c. 1940

When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announces yet another attack on the environmental laws and that protect us, it’s ironic, bitterly ironic, that the announcements are often made from the ceremonial auditorium on the third floor of EPA headquarters; from the Rachel Carson Room. The Rachel Carson room is just a few feet away from the EPA administrator’s office

In light of that circumstance, it’s appropriate to reconsider Rachel Carson.

To the extent the general public is aware of Rachel Carson at all today, it’s because of Silent Spring, her last book, published a little less than two years before her death. But Carson was a highly regarded nature writer long before Silent Spring; her Sea Trilogy, consisting of Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955) were all best sellers. Sea Around Us was on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 consecutive weeks. Carson was a meticulous, lyrical and immensely popular writer. Carson was an ecologist before the term was common. Trained as a marine biologist, her career, first for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and then for the US. Fish & Wildlife Service, was spent explaining science as accurately as possible to as broad an audience as possible.

Carson’s concerns about pesticides and herbicides started in the mid-1940s, but it was the United States’ 1957 gypsy moth eradication program that prompted her to devote her research, and her next book, to pesticides and environmental poisons. The gypsy moth program involved aerial spraying of DDT and other pesticides (mixed with fuel oil).

By 1960, Carson had more than enough research material, and the writing was progressing. In addition to a thorough literature search, she had investigated hundreds of individual incidents of pesticide exposure and resulting human sickness and ecological damage. However, in January, a duodenal ulcer followed by several infections kept her bedridden for weeks. That delayed the completion of Silent Spring. As she was nearing full recovery in March 1960 and just as she was completing drafts of the two cancer chapters the book she discovered cysts in her left breast. She had a mastectomy. by December Carson knew that the tumor was malignant and the cancer had metastasized. Health troubles slowed the final revisions in 1961 and early 1962.

There was an orchestrated campaign to keep Silent Spring from being published, pushed by the industrial chemical industry.  DuPont (a main manufacturer of DDT and 2,4-D) and Velsicol Chemical Corporation (exclusive manufacturer of chlordane and heptachlor) led the effort to suppress the book. Velsicol threatened legal action against her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, as well as The New Yorker, which serialized the book, if they published. Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower,1 reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”

In March 1964 her doctors discovered that the cancer had reached her liver. She died of a heart attack on April 14, 1964.

In one of her last public appearances, Carson testified before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee. The committee issued a report on May 15, 1963, largely backing Carson’s scientific claims. Following the report’s release, she also testified before a United States Senate subcommittee to make policy recommendations. Posthumously, those reports helped in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Few books in the 20th Century have had more impact and influence than Silent Spring. She got a few things wrong, but the attacks by her critics are mostly unfair. She did not insist upon banning use of DDT; she wanted to stop the use of DDT in agriculture. She didn’t oppose use of DDT to fight malaria; she cautioned that overuse would result in mosquitoes quickly evolving resistance. Which has happened. She is unfairly and inaccurately blamed for “millions of malaria deaths.” As John Quiggin and Tim Lambert have written of the lie, “The most striking feature of the claim against Carson is the ease with which it can be refuted.” DDT was never banned for anti-malarial use.

The struggle hasn’t ended. Not just the eco-disaster that is Scott Pruitt, either. In 2007, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D, Maryland) had intended to submit a resolution celebrating Carson for her “legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility” on the 100th anniversary of her birth. The resolution was blocked by Former Senator Tom Coburn (R, Oklahoma), who said that “The junk science and stigma surrounding DDT — the cheapest and most effective insecticide on the planet — have finally been jettisoned.” Clearly, he hadn’t read the book.

So here’s to Rachel Carson. We have to step in to her shoes, and carry her mission forward.


  1. The letter was widely reported at the time and is described in Carson’s biographer, Linda Lear, in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Henry Holt, 1997.