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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,249

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This is the grave of Rachel Carson.

Born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, Carson grew up outside of Pittsburgh, reading stories about animals and falling in love with the natural world. She went to the Pennsylvania College for Women, which is now known as Chatham University. She was a quiet young woman with few friends and who preferred reading and nature to parties and dates. She became a strong scientists and writer, both, a set of skills all too tare. She went to Johns Hopkins for graduate school beginning in 1929, working on fish. She got a master’s degree in zoology in 1932, but had to drop out of her Ph.D. program in 1934 because her family had fallen on hard times and she needed to support them.

This would be a major theme of Carson’s life. Her family was a mess. She spent much of her life working to support her relatives, taking them into her home, and otherwise trying to get through life with these enormous weights around her neck. Her father died shortly after she returned home, meaning she now had to take care of her mother. Most scientific positions wouldn’t even consider hiring a woman. The sciences were extraordinarily sexist and even highly skilled scientists such as Carson were channeled into only a few opportunities.

What Carson did finally get was a publicity job with the Bureau of Fisheries. If the scientific agencies weren’t going to hire her as a scientist, she did have her advanced writing skills. She did a great job developing a series of radio broadcasts on fish biology that proved pretty popular in educational circles. This was just a temporary position but she did such a great job that her supervisor ended up hiring her for a full time position in 1936. She was the second woman to ever work at the Bureau of Fisheries in a professional position. The Bureau of Fisheries was soon after merged into the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carson also began writing for the public. She proved to be an amazing communicator of science. She started writing in The Atlantic and submitting newspaper articles as well. Her articles did well enough that Simon & Schuster contacted her about maybe writing a book. That became Under the Sea Wind, which she published in 1941. Her specialty was ocean life and especially the borderland between land and oceans. This was the first of her three great books on the subject. The Sea Around Us came out in 1950, largely based on her New Yorker essays. Here she worked with oceanographers to transmit the most recent research on the oceans to the public. This book made her famous. She sold the rights to that book for a documentary that won an Academy Award in 1953, but she hated it, considering it inaccurate and the filmmaker unwilling to fix it. So she avoided being associated with it and refused to work with any film companies again. Then in 1955 came The Edge of the Sea, again a book based on New Yorker articles, again with excellent reviews.

Now, all of this finally made Carson, who very much did not come from a wealthy background, quite a bit of money. She had to spend a lot of that money on her extended family too. She never married or even seriously dated anyone. There were no children of her own of course. She had a close relationship for years with her friend Dorothy Freeman, but whether that was a sexual relationship or not is both unknown and also essentially irrelevant. They spent most their summers together in Maine.

For most of this time, Carson still worked for Fish and Wildlife. She had too, needing more money. She eventually moved toward financial independence. After The Edge of the Sea, Carson wanted to move away from ocean writing. She was in huge demand and could be published almost anywhere. She started working on a book about evolution, but it didn’t go well and so she stopped. By this time, her family troubles were just growing and growing. Her nieces lived with her, but they were as wild as the rest of Carson’s family. One had a child out of wedlock and then died when the child was 5, leaving Carson as the guardian. She adopted him while also taking care of her now quite old mother. It was very tough.

In 1957, Carson started looking into the new pesticide regime that had taken over in the U.S. since World War II. DDT was first developed in 1874 but no one realized it was useful against insects until 1939. In fact, Paul Hermann Müller won the Nobel Prize for discovering this. The military used it in World War II to kill mosquitoes that were damaging the war effort in the Pacific. The chemical companies wanted to continue this after the war and got permission to sell it domestically. Using World War II imagery in their ads, they declared war on insects in advertisements and by the 50s, the nation was just spewing it out all over the place. Only a few scientists even paid any attention to the fact that DDT kills freaking everything, rising through the food chain and wiping out fish and then the birds of prey that eat them.

Carson synthesized the research on DDT and published Silent Spring in 1962. It was a national sensation. The great environmentalist Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas made it a national campaign to ban DDT. It got the attention of John F. Kennedy. The chemical companies responded with a massive and openly sexist campaign that Carson was not only wrong, she was a hysterical woman who hated progress and an object lesson on why women can’t do science. The odious Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, noted that she was unmarried while not unattractive and thus his only conclusion is that she was a communist. It was really gross.

But Carson won the battle. The public was concerned. The science was on her side. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee investigated and came out with a report in favor of her findings in 1963. The chemical industry had to retreat from its grotesque attacks. A big CBS special about the dangers of the pesticide world definitely helped swing things. DDT was finally banned in 1972. Alas, Carson wasn’t around to see it. She was already fighting cancer when the book came out. She went out on the road the best she could to promote it but it was tough. She succumbed in 1964. She was 57 years old.

Rachel Carson, or half of her ashes anyway, is buried in Parklawn Memorial Park, Rockville, Maryland. There was a big battle over her ashes. She wanted them in Maine with Freeman but her family resisted this. So they split the difference. Good times.

Rachel Carson is naturally included in the Library of America’s volume American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. If you would like this series to visit some of the other writers included in that volume of environmental literature, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lynn Townshend White is in Los Angeles and Jane Jacobs is in Almedia, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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