For the Birds Radio Program: Rachel Carson

Original Air Date: May 27, 1988

Today is the birthday of one of the great people of the 20th Century. (4:16) Date confirmed.

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(Recording of a American Robin)

It takes an extraordinary person to change the world. Today is the birthday of one of the great people of the 20th Century, Rachel Carson, who was born on May 27, 1907.

Before writing Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was an unassuming biologist and writer. She always enjoyed bird- watching, but free time was a luxury to her—soon after she finished getting her Master’s Degree, her father died, and she got a job to support her mother, writing radio scripts about fish for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Then her sister died, and she took responsibility for the care of her two small nieces. She continued to work at Fish and Wildlife as she pursued her lifetime interest in writing by publishing three lyrical books about the sea. By 1957, she was a successful but ailing author suffering from arthritis, an ulcer, and serious staph infections. That year her niece died, and she adopted her great-nephew. Soon afterward, her mother died. Now Rachel Carson was beginning to suffer some of the symptoms of the cancer that would kill her in seven years. She wanted, and needed, to slow down and rest.

But in January, 1958, she received a letter from a woman named Olga Huckins of Duxbury, Massachusetts, who was concerned about pesticides being sprayed over a private bird sanctuary in Cape Cod. As Rachel Carson researched the problem, she grew alarmed. Soon afterward, she was asked to testify about a spraying project on Long Island. Although she was too ill to attend the trial, her interest in the issue increased, to ultimately consume the rest of her life.

It took over four years to research and write Silent Spring, which was published first in a three part condensation in The New Yorker, and then in book form on September 27, 1962. The book clearly explained how all life forms are interrelated—the poisons we use to kill insects ultimately seep through the food chain to contaminate higher animals, including ourselves. Before the book even came out, the chemical industry began attacking Rachel Carson’s scientific credibility, accused her of taking part in a communist plot to weaken the nation, and even ridiculed her personal life. A member of the Federal Pest Control Board dismissed her concerns with, “I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?” Time magazine called her book an “emotional and inaccurate outburst.” And Chemical World News called it “science fiction, to be read in the same way the TV program ‘Twilight Zone’ is to be watched.”

But in spite of the brutal attacks, Silent Spring flourished. Loren Eisley, Julian Huxley, and other scientists praised its scientific accuracy. Critics honored it, and millions of readers kept it on the best seller lists for almost a year. Within months of its publication, there were over forty bills in state legislatures to regulate pesticides. And the massive environmental movement that Silent Spring spawned ultimately led to the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the nationwide banning of DDT.

Tragically, Rachel Carson did not live to see the fruits of her labor. She died on April 14, 1964, during a spring when scientists, stimulated by her work, were first discovering that DDT damages egg shells of nesting birds. In 1980, Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the United States government can bestow. Not even the Reagan agenda to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and deregulate the chemical industry can diminish Rachel Carson’s gift to us and our children, a reprieve from silent spring. But we cannot forget what she taught us, or that reprieve will be lost forever.

(Recording of an American Robin)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”