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Maine Writers Index - Detail   (Return to List)

Rachel Louise Carson (1907 - 1964)

Genre: Non-Fiction - Scholarly

Rachael Carson -- biologist, environmentalist, nature writer, and crusader -- was born the youngest of three children in Springdale, PA, a small town near Pittsburgh, and she died in Silver Spring, MD. From the mid-1940s, she and her mother spent summers near West Southport, Maine, and in 1952, Carson built a summer cottage along the Sheepscot River here.

Even as a child, Carson was always interested in nature and being outside, and she was also a reader and writer from an early age. In 1918, at the age of 10, she was published in the St. Nicholas Literary Magazine for children, with a story called "A Battle in the Clouds."

Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women at Pittsburgh (now Chatham College) on a small scholarship, majoring first in English, then switching to biology. She graduated magna cum laude in 1928. She attended a six-week summer session at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, at Cape Cod, then went on to study genetics and marine zoology at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her M.A. in 1932 in marine zoology. She taught at Hopkins and at the University of Maryland for a few years, then joined what became the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., first as a part-time scriptwriter for a science radio show called "Romance Under the Seas." In 1936, she was hired as a junior aquatic biologist.

The Baltimore Sun published a series of her articles on various aspects of the sea -- written to supplement her teaching income -- and her first major publication, an article entitled "Undersea," was published in Atlantic Monthly in Sept. 1937. It had been developed by Carson as an introduction to the print brochures based on the "Romance Under the Seas" shows.

During WWII, Carson's responsibility at Fish & Wildlife was to promote fish as an alternative to foods in short supply because of the war. Between 1943 and 1945, she wrote four pamphlets describing over 70 fish and shellfish. Extremely successful, these booklets served as information sources for newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts throughout the country.

Carson served as editor-in-chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service's publications from 1949 to 1952, when she was able -- because of the success of her book The Sea Around Us -- to resign from the Service to devote more time to writing. For her contributions she was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Department of the Interior.

Carson's first (and favorite) book, Under the Sea Wind attracted little notice when published in 1941, although it was a Scientific Book Club book-of-the-month selection. But her second book, The Sea Around Us (1951), which she researched while on a Eugene Saxton Fellowship in 1949, was a best-seller for 86 weeks and has been translated into thirty languages. The book, originally serialized as "A Profile of the Sea," received the National Book Award in 1952, among many other awards.

Carson's third book, The Edge of the Sea (1955), firmly established Carson as the most popular scientific writer in the country.

Silent Spring (1962), her fourth book, was first serialised in The New Yorker and immediately drew the wrath of the chemical industry. Carson was accused of being a Communist by Velsicol Chemical Company, which threatened to sue her publisher. The New York Times review of the book, titled "There's Poison All Around Us Now," appeared on September 23, 1962. The controversy around the book -- which warned the public of the hazards of pesticide misuse and abuse -- led to a federal investigation into the misuse of pesticides and resulted in lengthy Congressional hearings in 1963. The Sept. 2002 issue of Smithsonian magazine takes a look back at the book and the movement it began.

A fifth book, The Sense of Wonder, was published posthumously in 1965.

In the early 1950s, Carson became friends with Dorothy Murdoch Freeman (1898-1978) who was an administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Services. Carson's Maine home was built near the home of Freeman and her family. The two women exchanged many letters over a twelve-year period, some of which are now published as Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964 (1995; edited by Dorothy Freeman's grand-daughter, Martha Freeman). Bates College has a collection of 543 of these letters, slightly more than half of which were published in the book mentioned above. Maine's Newagen Inn website provides the text of the letter Carson wrote to Freeman on her "last full day in Maine."

Carson died in Spring 1964 of breast cancer that had been diagnosed in 1960. The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine -- a 4,600-acre refuge that stretches from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth -- was dedicated in June 1964 in her memory. The refuge consists primarily of coastal salt marsh with habitat for more than 250 bird and mammal species.

Carson adopted her grandnephew, Roger Christie, on her niece's death in 1957, when Roger was just five years old.

In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Yale Library provides a long biographical sketch of Carson as well as details about her papers there. For a list of other resource collections, as well as more biographical material, visit the Rachael Carson Organization website. Carson's obituary from the 4/15/64 New York Times also provides a lot of biographical information. Time magazine, which named Carson one of its Time 100 Scientists and Thinkers, also provides background information on her, especially on Silent Spring. A chronology of Carson's life is also available online. For more on Carson, the environment, and ethics, onlineethics.org presents "Rachel Carson: A Scientist Alerts The Public To The Hazards of Pesticides, " with chapters on her background, the uses of DDT, Carson's decision to write the book, anticipating hostile reaction from the chemical industry, and how she coped with her own health problems and family crises, accompanied by a bibliography and lots of other supporting materials, including a summary of the book and a list of environmental legislation and agencies. The Natural Resources Defense Council provides a history of Silent Spring and links to more information on pesticides and health.

Books about Carson include these for adults: Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997), by Linda Lear, considered the definitive biography; Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (1998), edited with introduction by Linda Lear; And No Birds Sing. Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (2000), ed. Craig Waddell, a collection of new and revised essays examining Carson's language in Silent Spring; and Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work (1972/1998), by Paul Brooks. Books for children include Sounding The Alarm (1989), by Judith Harlan; Rachel Carson: The Wonder of Nature (1992; Earth Keepers series), by Catherine Reef; Rachel Carson: Voice for the Earth (1992), by Ginger Wadsworth.

The National Conservation Training Center is presenting a conference entitled Rachel Carson and the Conservation Movement: Past, Present, and Future in August 2001 in West Virginia.

Last Update: 05/30/2007

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