Rachel Carson, From Pittsburgh Farmhouse to International Conservation

Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie is a place I’ve visited my entire life and is also one of my customers for commercial art and design. In 2018, as part of the plan for Library Park, the community was invited to help create a mosaic that would be mounted on two low seating walls in the park. The design included features of the Library & Music Hall, around Carnegie, and the Pittsburgh area. Rachel Carson, because of her impact on our local environment and green space, of which the park is a part, was included in the design.

While I typically design the Library & Music Hall’s newsletter, the executive director asked me to also write an article about Rachel Carson’s work, explaining science in everyday terms but in an evocative, poetic style that made her work very popular to scientists and everyday people alike, her findings leading eventually to the environmental legislation in the 1960s and 70s that changed our lives here in Pittsburgh, and many other cities in this country. That was my pleasure entirely. When I read A Sense of Wonder I was proud, as an adult, to still be picking up neat rocks and identifying wildflowers, interpreting it all in my own way.

Rachel Carson’s name may immediately bring to mind “Silent Spring”. Though that is her best-known work she was an award-winning writer long before its 1962 publication, and found her way to that subject and international fame from a distant starting point—a log cabin in a rural community near Pittsburgh.

Born in 1907 in a 50-year-old log cabin with no utilities on a farm north of Pittsburgh, she was a pioneer in her education and practice as a female scientist who brought her understanding of the natural world to readers with her graceful and descriptive prose, and stepped from there to conservation with writing that inspired the environmental movements and legislation of the 1960s and 70s.

She was born in Springdale, 18 miles north of Pittsburgh. You can still visit the house, now managed by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, which preserves her legacy in the place where she began. The family’s 65-acre farm on which she explored her surroundings is much reduced, but this was the place where she first met and fell in love with the natural world, finding her own “sense of wonder” in her adventures on the land with her mother and later on her own.

A brilliant student, publishing her first story about the natural world at age 10, she graduated high school at the top of her class in 1925 and went to what was then the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University. Originally majoring in English with the goal of being a writer she changed her major to biology but continued submitting to the school’s literary publications. After graduation her next stop was Johns Hopkins University for graduate study in zoology and genetics. Working her way through financial setbacks she graduated with a master’s degree in zoology in 1935.

Her father’s death in 1935 prevented her from moving on to doctoral studies as she sought a job to help support her family. In the midst of the Great Depression jobs were few but she was encouraged by a mentor to take a part-time position writing radio copy for the US Bureau of Fisheries, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Her manner of translating the science into literature that was not overly simplified nor pedantic was so popular that she rose through the ranks to become editor of publications, and stayed with the bureau until 1952.

At the same time her writing also caught the attention of magazine and book publishers and soon she was publishing articles and working on her first books, not about conservation, but about the life of the sea. The Sea Around Us published in 1951 was on the best seller list for 86 weeks. Also in 1951, in a crossover with science and art, she was invited to write liner notes for the RCA Victor Recording of Claude Debussy’s La Mer with the National Symphony Orchestra. Chapters of her books were published as freestanding stories or serialized in The New Yorker and The Yale Review among others, she won prestigious literary awards, received honorary doctorate degrees, other book proposals were accepted, and in 1952 she could have her career as a full-time science writer.

And then came Silent Spring.

Carson will always be remembered for the message and legacy of Silent Spring, that the way the pesticide DDT was overused in the 1950s would cause irreversible damage not only to wildlife and the environment in which it was used, but its carcinogenic effect would also sicken and kill many people. Synthetic pesticides were new then, developed along with many other chemical agents with funding from the military after WWII. Not much study had been done about their effects outside of killing target insects, but along with other uses DDT was liberally sprayed aerially, mixed with fuel oil, to kill the gypsy moths that chewed their way through any forest they populated, including onto private land.

Begun in 1958 the book was four years of research with government and private scientists and doctors, writing that proved with scientific evidence the detrimental effects of overuse of such chemicals, and a recommendation to use them in appropriate, targeted amounts. She was refuted as “hysterical” and her abilities as a scientist were questioned in part because of her sex, but in the end, after hearings and reports, it was her science that held firm and convinced the US government that DDT and other synthetic pesticides should be regulated for public health and safety.

The general public agreed and through the 1960s, on the back of the science and impact of Silent Spring, a slew of environmental pollution control regulations of air, water and land were passed along with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

But Rachel Carson never saw the final impact of her work. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1960 and even with surgery and radiation it metastasized and she died in April 1964.

She was only 57 years old. Imagine what she could have carried forward if she had been around for the next decade and the spread of environmental awareness both for public health and safety and for land conservation.

We stand now where two roads diverge . . . The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.  The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962


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