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Summer 2022 JAPOS Bulletin, Whole Number 186.

Rachel Carson: Did Her Books Change the World?

by Rene Manes and Clete Delvaux

I own a thin book by Robert Downs entitled Books

That Changed the World: The Mighty Power of the

Printed Word. It describes sixteen great books that

changed the course of history. They range from Copernicus

and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Darwin, Freud,

Einstein, etc. I’d like to propose a more modern addition to

Downs’ list of books: Silent Spring by Rachel

Carson (1907–1964). Much of this article was written

in 2007 by JAPOS member Rene Manes, who died

over a decade ago from cancer—just as Carson did in1964.

In 1980, Rachel Carson was one of 26 people honored

in USPS’s Great Americans series; she was one of

four writers (Sc# 1857) recognized in the group, which

included Walter Lippmann, Pearl Buck, and Sinclair

Lewis. [Editor’s Note: I would welcome an article on

any of the other three by a JAPOS member-writer.]

In 1999, Palau issued a souvenir sheet (Sc# 447–448)

celebrating environmentalists. Sc# 447a shows Carson

with a pelican in the background. In 2000, Marshall Islands

and Zambia also issued stamps honoring Rachel Carson.

Carson was born in western Pennsylvania where

she explored the forests and streams around the family

farm. During her college years, she changed majors

from English to biology, continued with graduate work

at Johns Hopkins University, and then studied marine

biology at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Her early studies in English stood her in good stead

when she was employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Service, where she was often assigned to write guide

books, pamphlets, and bulletins—plus doing radio

scripts on marine life. From 1941 to 1957, she wrote

three books about the sea, one of which, The Sea

Around Us (1951), attained best-seller status and by

1962 had been published in 30 languages. The other

two books were Under the Sea Wind (1941) and The

Edge of the Sea (1955). These three books were dis-

tinguished by Carson’s scholarship, her lyrical prose,

and her ability to inspire her readers with her own

love of nature.

With newly gained financial independence, Rachel

Carson left her government job and retired to a farm.

In 1962, friends urged her to write her last and most

controversial book, Silent Spring. In this book, which

was an immediate success, she aggressively exposed

the dangers of excessive reliance on pesticides,

especially the damage done to birds and wildlife by

uncontrolled use of DDT spraying. The title, Silent

Spring, was inspired by a line in John Keats’ poem “La

Belle Dame sans Merci,” which contains the lines “The

sedge is withered from the lake / And no birds sing.”

The chemical industry, the agriculture sector, the

USDA, and even well-regarded media such as The

New York Times joined forces to immediately counter

attack the book. Lawsuits were threatened, Carson’s

conclusions were questioned and her scientific credibility challenged. Both sides of the intense debates

that followed were guilty of exaggeration and outright

error. But the important environmental issues had

been brought to the public’s attention and have never

been forgotten.

The overarching theme of Silent Spring is the powerful

and often negative effects that humans have on

the natural world. The book closes with a call for a

biotic (that is, caused by living organisms) approach to

pest control as an alternative to chemical pesticides.

The book had a powerful impact on the environmental

movement of the 1960s and led to the creation of

the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the

Nixon Administration in 1970.

Carson’s Silent Spring has been featured in many

lists of the best nonfiction books of the 20th century,

“named one of the 25 greatest science books of all

time,” and “designated a National Historic Chemical

Landmark.” Naturalist David Attenborough has stated

that Silent Spring was probably the book that had

changed the scientific world the most, after On the

Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

I was impressed by a couple of Carson’s remarks

taken from the acceptance speech for her National

Book Award for Nonfiction: “The aim of science is to

discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the

aim of literature, whether biography or history or fic-

tion. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate

literature of science….” And “The winds, the sea,

and the moving 􀆟 des are what they are. If there is

wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will

discover these qualities. If they are not there, science

cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book…, it

is not because I deliberately placed it there, but because

no one could write truthfully about the sea and

leave out the poetry.”




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