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Rachel Carson, 1907-1964: Environmentalist and Author

Environmentalist and Writer Rachel Carson
Environmentalist and Writer Rachel Carson

Her Books Helped Launch The Environmental Protection Movement

FAITH LAPIDUS: People America, a program in Special English on the Voice of America. Today, Steve Ember and Rich Kleinfeldt tell about scientist Rachel Carson. Her work started the environmental protection movement in the United States.


STEVE EMBER: Rachel Carson was born on May twenty-seventh, nineteen-oh-seven in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Rachel’s father, Robert Carson, was a salesman who invested in local land. He purchased twenty-six hectares of land to make a home for his family. The area was surrounded by fields, trees and streaMiss The Carson family enjoyed living in the beautiful, country environment.

Rachel’s mother, Maria Carson, had been a schoolteacher. She loved books. She also loved nature. Rachel was the youngest of three children. Her sister and brother were already in school when she was born. So Missus Carson was able to spend a lot of time with Rachel. She showed Rachel the beauty of nature. She also taught Rachel a deep love for books. Missus Carson became the most important influence on Rachel’s life.

RICH KLEINFELDT: Rachel was a quiet child. She liked to read and to write poems and stories. She was very intelligent. At a very early age she decided she wanted to be a writer someday. Her first published story appeared in a children’s magazine when she was ten years old.

Rachel went to the Pennsylvania College for Women. She studied English because she wanted to become a professional writer. Yet, she felt she did not have the imagination to write creative stories. She changed her area of study from English to science after she took a biology course that she liked. Her professors advised her not to study science. They said there was no future for a woman in science.

Rachel Carson, 1907-1964: Environmentalist and Author
Rachel Carson, 1907-1964: Environmentalist and Author

STEVE EMBER: In nineteen twenty-nine, Rachel graduated from college with high honors. She won a financial award to study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In nineteen thirty-two, she earned a master’s degree in zoology, the scientific study of animals. She taught zoology at the University of Maryland for a few years. During the summers, she studied the ocean and its life forms at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. That is when she became interested in the mysteries of the sea.


RICH KLEINFELDT: Rachel’s life changed greatly in the middle nineteen thirties. Her father died suddenly in nineteen thirty-five. He left very little financial support for Rachel’s mother. It was during the economic decline in the United States called the Great Depression. Rachel now had to support her mother and herself. She needed more money than her teaching job could provide. She began part-time work for a federal government agency, the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, D.C.

One year later, Rachel’s sister died. Her sister was the mother of two young girls. Rachel and her mother cared for the girls. Rachel now had to support her mother, two nieces and herself. Again, she needed a job with better pay.

STEVE EMBER: A full time job for a biologist opened at the United States Bureau of Fisheries. Rachel Carson was the only woman to try for the position. She had the highest score of all people competing for the job.

Miss Carson got the position in August, nineteen thirty-six. She was chosen to work in the office of the chief of the biology division.

Her first job was to write a series of programs called “Romance Under the Waters.” The series was broadcast on radio for a year. She continued to write and edit publications for the Bureau of Fisheries for many years. The bureau was happy to have a scientist who was also an excellent writer. Rachel Carson provided information to the public in interesting and understandable ways.

Rachel Carson wrote Pen Against Paper for the American Department of State
Rachel Carson wrote Pen Against Paper for the American Department of State

RICH KLEINFELDT: In nineteen-forty, the United States Bureau of Fisheries and the Biological Survey joined to become the Fish and Wildlife Service. Miss Carson continued as one of the few women employed there as a scientist. The other women worked as office assistants.

While she was working for the government, Miss Carson wrote at night and on weekends. In nineteen thirty-seven she wrote a report about sea life. It was called Undersea. It appeared in the magazine, Atlantic Monthly. An editor at a publishing house encouraged her to write a book about the sea for the general public. So she did. Her first book, "Under the Sea Wind," was published in nineteen forty-one.

STEVE EMBER: In nineteen forty-eight, Miss Carson began working on another book, "The Sea Around Us." It became her first best-selling book.

Rachel Carson always researched carefully when she wrote. She gathered information from more than one thousand places to write "The Sea Around Us." She also wrote letters to experts all over the world.

STEVE EMBER: "The Sea Around Us" was published in nineteen fifty-one. It was number one on the best-seller list for more than a year. It won the National Book Award. "The Sea Around Us" made Rachel Carson famous. The money the book earned eased her financial responsibilities for the first time in years.

In nineteen fifty-two, Miss Carson was able to leave her job at the Fish and Wildlife Service and spend her time writing. Miss Carson moved to a home on the coast of Maine. There she studied the ecology of the sea. Her next book, "The Edge of the Sea," was published in nineteen fifty-five. It told of the connection of all living creatures in areas where land and ocean meet.


RICH KLEINFELDT: Rachel Carson’s most famous book, "Silent Spring" was published in nineteen sixty-two. The idea for the book developed from a suggestion from a friend. Rachel’s friend owned a protected area for birds. An airplane had flown over the area where the birds were kept and spread a powerful chemical called DDT. It was part of a project to control mosquitoes. Many songbirds and harmless insects were killed by the DDT.

Miss Carson and other scientists were very concerned about the harmful effects of DDT and other insect-killing chemicals called pesticides. After World War Two, these poisonous chemicals were widely used to control insects. Pesticides were sprayed almost everywhere including agricultural fields and communities. DDT and other pesticides had become popular with the public and the government because they were so effective. Manufacturing these chemicals had become a huge industry.

STEVE EMBER: Rachel Carson tried to get many magazines interested in publishing a report about the subject. However, none would agree to publish anything about such a disputed subject. They said no one wanted to hear that industrial companies could cause great ecological damage.

Miss Carson believed the public needed to know about this important issue. She decided to write a book about it. She collected facts from experts from all over the world. She gathered studies that showed the harmful effects of DDT, including declining bird populations and increased human cancers.

In her book "Silent Spring," Miss Carson questioned the right of industrial companies to pollute without considering the effects on the environment. Miss Carson argued that this kind of pollution would result in ever-decreasing populations of birds and other wildlife. She said this would lead to the loss of the wonderful sounds of nature. The chemical poisoning of the environment, she said, would cause a silent spring.

RICH KLEINFELDT: The chemical industry felt threatened. Industry spokesmen and other critics said the book was non-scientific and emotional. They misunderstood the message of the book. Miss Carson did not suggest that all pesticides be banned. She urged that control of these substances be given to biologists who could make informed decisions about the risks involved.

Support for the book increased. By the end of nineteen sixty-two, there were more than forty bills in state legislatures proposing to control pesticides. Finally, in November, nineteen sixty-nine, the United States government ruled that the use of DDT must stop in two years.

Rachel Carson did not live to see how her book influenced the government’s decision to ban DDT. She died of breast cancer in nineteen sixty-four. She was fifty-six years old.

STEVE EMBER: Two memorials honor Rachel Carson. One is the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. The other is the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the home she lived in when she was a child. Education programs are offered there that teach children and adults about her environmental values.

Rachel Carson’s voice is alive in her writings that express the wonder and beauty of the natural world. And her worldwide influence continues through the activities of the environmental protection movement she started.


FAITH LAPIDUS: This Special English program was written by Lawan Davis. It was produced by Paul Thompson. Your announcers were Steve Ember and Rich Kleinfeldt. I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for another People in America program on the Voice of America.