Rachel Carson Through the Years
Rachel Carson is considered one of America’s finest science and nature writers. She is best known for her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which is often credited with beginning the environmental movement in the United States. The book focussed on the uncontrolled and often indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (commonly known as DDT), and the irreparable environmental damage caused by these chemicals. The public outcry Carson generated by the book motivated the U.S. Senate to form a committee to
investigate pesticide use. Her eloquent testimony before the committee altered the views of many government officials and helped lead to the
creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Rachel Louise Carson, the youngest of three children, was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, a small town twenty miles north of Pittsburgh. Her parents, Robert Warden and Maria McLean Carson, lived on sixty-five acres and kept cows, chickens, and horses. Although the land was not a true working farm, it had plenty of woods, animals, and streams, and here, near the shores of the Allegheny River, Carsonlearned about the interrelationship between the land and animals.
Carson’s mother was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and she instilled in her a love of nature and taught her the intricacies of music, art, and literature. Carson’s early life was one of isolation; she had few friends besides her cats, and she spent most of her time reading and pursuing the study of nature. She began writing poetry at age eight and published her first story, “A Battle in the Clouds,” in St. Nicholas magazine at the age of ten. She later claimed that her professional writing career began at age eleven, when St. Nicholas paid her a little over three dollars for one of her essays.
Carson planned to pursue a career as a writer when she received a four-year scholarship in 1925 from the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College, in Pittsburgh. Here she fell under the influence of Mary Scott Skinker, whose freshman biology course altered her career plans. In the middle of her junior year, Carson switched her major from English to zoology, and in 1928 she graduated magnum cum laude.”Biology has given me something to write about,” she wrote to a friend, as quoted in Carnegie magazine. “I will try in my writing to make animals in the woods or waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me.”
With Skinker’s help, Carson obtained first a summer fellowship at the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole in Massachusetts and then a one-year scholarship from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. While at Woods Hole over the summer, she saw the ocean for the first time and encountered her first exotic sea creatures, including sea anemones and sea urchins. At Johns Hopkins, she studied zoology and genetics. Graduate school did not proceed smoothly; she encountered financial problems and experimental difficulties but eventually managed to finish her highly detailed master’s dissertation, “The Development of the Pronephoros during the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of the Catfish.” In June 1932, she received her master’s degree.
Carson was entering the job market at the height of the Great Depression. Her parents sold their Pennsylvania home and moved to Maryland to ease some of her financial burdens. She taught zoology at Johns Hopkins during the summers and on a part-time basis at the University of Maryland during the regular school year. While she loved teaching, the meager salaries she earned were barely enough to sustain herself, and, in 1935, her financial situation became even more desperate when her father died unexpectedly, leaving her solely responsible for supporting her fragile mother.
Before beginning her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, Carson had arranged an interview with Elmer Higgins, who was head of the Division of Scientific Inquiry at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Carson wanted to discuss her job prospects in marine biology, and Higgins had been encouraging, though he then had little to offer. Carson contacted Higgins again at this time, and she discovered that he had an opening at the Bureau of Fisheries for a part-time science writer to work on radio scripts. The only obstacle was