Rachel Carson: A Conservation Legacy
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Pioneering Public Servant and Scientist

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is best remembered for her pioneering indictment of pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), which began the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson's sixteen years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are now largely forgotten. This is unfortunate because many of Carson's ideas and writing skills originated while working for the nation's only wildlife conservation agency.

Carson had not intended to work for the government, but her hopes of an academic career were derailed by the Great Depression. Faced with supporting a family and armed with a Masters in Zoology from Johns Hopkins University, she sought a position with the Bureau of Fisheries the nation's oldest conservation agency. In 1936 she was hired by the Bureau at the minuscule, but stable, salary of $19.25 a week.

She was the first female biologist hired by the Bureau and one of only two women in a non-clerical position. Although she held a Masters in Zoology, mores of the day precluded her from traveling on marine research vessels and pursuing field studies. She was assigned to write radio scripts explaining marine biology and the work of the Bureau of Fisheries to the American public. Her aptitude for writing blossomed in this position and some of her more ambitious scripts were adapted for popular magazines of the day like Atlantic Monthly.

Carson's ability to make the life of the sea come alive for the American public was evident in her first published book Under the Sea Wind (1941). The book was anthropomorphic albeit engaging in its clear-headed explanations of life in the sea. Unfortunately it was a commercial flop and Carson remained a writer-biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the new entity created in 1940 by combining the Bureau of Fisheries with the Biological Survey. Within this new agency, responsible for conservation of all creatures on land and sea, Carson rose quickly. Her writing and editing skills allowed her to become Chief Editor of all Publications by 1949 – an important position as the Service attempted to explain wildlife conservation for the first time to the broader American public.

As part of this effort Carson was put in charge of an ambitious series called "Conservation In Action"—an attempt to explain the work of the Service through extensive photos, clear text, and an overarching theme of protecting the environment to maintain our wildlife resources for posterity. It was the type of lucid explanation of complex ecological principles (e.g., environmental destruction, food chains, migratory bird flyways) that was to become a hallmark of her books.

In addition to being the public relations arm of American conservation, Carson was also suddenly exposed to cutting edge science including troubling new findings on environmental contaminants. The Fish and Wildlife Service's premiere laboratory in Laurel, MD had begun to study the effects of pesticides like DDT on certain wildlife, primarily birds and their eggs. This research had begun early in 1944 shortly after DDT came into widespread use as a chemical to win the World War II. As Chief Editor Carson oversaw all the scientific publications emanating from this new research and as early as 1945 began considering the topic as a source of an article or book. However, she was already at work on her second more successful book The Sea Around Us (1951). This second book was a bestseller and allowed Carson to leave the "lucrative" field of government service and devote herself full time to writing.

Yet the germ of an idea had already been laid and ten years after she left the Service in 1952 Carson would write a pioneering book ushering in the modern environmental movement, Silent Spring. Amidst Silent Spring's voluminous endnotes are references to her scientist colleagues at Patuxent and national wildlife refuge managers in places Carson had profiled for her "Conservation In Action" series. The skills Carson had developed in her sixteen years as government writer allowed her to take a complex scientific argument and make a compelling case to the general public in the chemical indictment that was Silent Spring.

Carson’s Silent Spring was quickly attacked by agrichemical interests often along gender lines. Carson was derided as being “hysterical,” a “spinster”, and “unscientific.” Her success with and, eventual, acceptance by government biologists helped her withstand these baseless attacks. She had shown in her books and work with the Fish and Wildlife Service that she could edit, write, and explore science more lucidly and credibly than most.

Although Carson was always a writer and only occasionally a federal conservationist, all of her work benefited from this important early initiation into public writing, wildlife conservation, and environmental contaminants. Carson gently led her audience through the complexities of food chains, contaminants, interconnectedness of natural systems, and a balance of nature in all her federal and popular writings. Her legacy can be found in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Environmental Contaminants, the Endangered Species Act, and in a more knowledgeable American public concerned about the status of their local environment.

Perhaps her final legacy is one of civil servant's mobilized for conservation. There may be no better role model for federal conservationists than Rachel Carson. Not only did she overcome significant obstacles facing women in science, but she became our century's most articulate voice for a harmonious balance between humans and nature. Carson's life and legacy are an inspiration to public servants who seek to protect our natural resources in perpetuity and a stinging rebuke to those who would diminish and degrade our children's natural inheritance. She outlined a path for all of us to conduct our work with integrity and ethics and to devote our lives to conservation in action.

 

 

Last updated: April 12, 2007

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