Rachel Carson: A Conservation Legacy
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". . . synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere. They have been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from streams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they may have been applied a dozen years before. . . They have been found in fish in remote mountain lakes, in earthworms burrowing in soil, in the eggs of birds--and in man himself."
- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Rachel Carson: Sounding the Tocsin on Environmental Contaminants

The spring of 1962 was anything but silent. In fact, the publication of sections of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking study of the widespread effects of indiscriminate pesticide use in the June issue of New Yorker sounded an alarm that was heard across the nation.

It can fairly be said that the seeds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Environmental Contaminants Program were planted with the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring, but it can also be said that the book itself owed its existence to the years its author spent working for that agency and her interactions with Federal scientists studying the effects of pesticides on wildlife.

When young Ms. Carson set off for the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) her original aim was to study English and creative writing in preparation for a literary career. However, the influences of her rural upbringing in Springdale, Pennsylvania, and more importantly of her mother, who introduced her to the wonders of the natural world that would become her lifelong passion, led her to change her major to marine biology. It was this combination of biological knowledge and writing skills that would shape her impact on the world.

Rachel Carson graduated from college magna cum laude in 1929 and went on to earn a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. Soon after graduation she took a part time position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), writing scripts for a natural-history radio show called “Romance Under the Waters.” In 1936 she became only the second woman to be employed by the Bureau as a full-time biologist. Over the next 15 years, Ms. Carson wrote and edited agency publications ranging from scientific papers to cookbooks; eventually she was named national Editor-in Chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service, overseeing all print products produced by the agency.

Earlier in her career, however, one of her pieces that was deemed “too literary” for government publication found a home in the Atlantic Monthly. That 1937 article, “Undersea,” led to her first book, Under the Sea Wind, which was published in 1941. The volume was a critical success but, likely in part because it was released just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, was not a commercial success

It was Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, that galvanized her literary career. Sitting on the New York Times bestseller list for some 86 weeks, the volume was excerpted in Nature, abridged in Reader’s Digest, and won a National Book Award in 1952. It also provided its author with the financial independence needed to resign from government service and devote herself full-time to her writing career.

It was at the end of the Second World War, however, while still working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that Rachel Carson first noted, with concern, the increased use of chemical insecticides. “The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became," she would later write. "What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important." She set herself to the task of accumulating information on the subject and, in 1957, began working on the project that would be published in 1962 as Silent Spring.

It was, without exaggeration, a literary bombshell. Carson was attacked by industry and by some in government, her science belittled and her politics questioned. She refused to be cowed, however, and testified before Congress in 1963, calling for new government initiatives to protect people and the environment from the hazards of environmental contaminants.

Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in 1964 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. government can award to a civilian. Her legacy lives on in the work of the biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Environmental Contaminants Program. Today, more than four decades after Silent Spring sounded the alarm, these men and women are increasing our understanding of the long-term impacts of pesticides and other contaminants, and working to minimize the problems that we might, without such knowledge, inflict upon future generations.

In the post-Silent Spring era, our need to understand the impact of environmental contaminants on the natural world has not diminished. Biologists in the Environmental Contaminants Program specialize in detecting toxic contaminants in fish, wildlife and environmental samples; understanding and countering the harmful effects associated with these contaminants; and recommending innovative solutions for the restoration of habitats damaged by contamination. They are experts on the effects of oil and chemical spills, pesticides, water quality impairment, hazardous materials disposal, and other aspects of contaminant biology. The challenges they face can perhaps best be summarized in Rachel Carson’s own words, from a 1963 interview on CBS television:

“It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks….The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.

“We still talk in terms of conquest. We haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature.

“Now, I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

Last updated: April 12, 2007

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