An American Heroine's Indelible Mark
50 Years After Warning of Silent Spring
Rachel Carson, field biologist, at work. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, courtesy of Time and Life Pictures, Getty Images
This September will mark 50 years since the publication of the ground-breaking book, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. It seems fitting to pause for a moment to pay tribute to this American heroine, Rachel Carson and her conservation legacy. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a hero as one who shows great courage. Carson was that and more.
A brilliant writer, she is credited by many with the modern environmental movement that inspired Earth Day, an international day of environmental awareness that came at the personal cost of slamming head first into a libelous wall of bitter contention and conventional wisdom. Her bestselling book, first published in the New Yorker, was an indictment of wide scale pesticide use, brought environmental awareness to the forefront for the American public, and ultimately led to a nationwide ban of DDT. The book takes its title from the opening chapter in which Carson depicts a town eerily devoid of the sounds of nature, the devastation of which resulted from rampant, unchecked pesticide use.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues her work on a litany of issues, including emerging contaminants and Natural Resource Damage Assessment projects like the Enbridge (in Michigan) and Gulf oil spills that are still plaguing the nation.
Born in Springdale, Pa. on May 27, 1907, Carson was a trail blazer on many levels. She was a conservationist who won a scholarship to complete graduate work in biology at John Hopkins University in Maryland—virtually unheard of for a woman in 1929.
It’s relatively easy to remember all of Rachel’s great achievements. But it is just as important to remember her as a woman too—a human being. Yes, Rachel’s achievements were monumental, but they came at great sacrifice. She was a woman who endured terrible ridicule and scrutiny in her quest to save our environment from the ravages of chemical pesticides. Not only were her credentials called into question, but her integrity and sanity were as well.
In the 1963 CBS news report, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” Dr. Robert White-Stevens, a spokesman for the chemical industry, said the major claims of the book were, “gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific, experimental evidence...”. One chemical company passed out thousands of leaflets that derided the book. Several sponsors dropped out of the aforementioned CBS documentary that featured an interview with the author. It suffices to say that her opponents were formidable.
In the wake of Carson’s legacy, environmentalists are still working to resolve contaminant issues and to keep the American public informed about them. Contaminants of emerging concern are found in personal care products, on farms, or by industry and business in a variety of common products such as deodorants, steroids, hormones, prescription and non-prescription drugs, plasticizers, pesticides, and detergents. Many of these contaminants are not regulated or inadequately regulated despite evidence suggesting that fish and wildlife suffer developmental and reproductive effects when exposed. Although we are able to detect these substances in surface water, little is known about their effects on fish and wildlife populations.
History makers are almost inevitably the unfair targets of ignorance, fear and comfort in the stagnant status quo. This September, as we pause to remember the contribution and sacrifice this phenomenal woman made, let’s remember that Rachel Carson was not only a trailblazing environmentalist and talented, influential writer, but she was an enormously courageous human being—a heroine in her finest form.
To learn more about emerging contaminants and what the Service is doing about them, visit: http://www.fws.gov/contaminants/
By Valerie Rose Redmond