Biography of Rachel Louise Carson
Born: May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania
Died: April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland
Books: Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955), Silent Spring (1962), and The Sense of Wonder (posthumous, 1965)
Rachel Carson, writer, scientist, and ecologist, grew up simply in the rural river town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her mother bequeathed to her a life-long love of nature and the living world that Rachel expressed first as a writer and later as a student of marine biology. Carson graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.
She was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to write radio scripts during the Depression and supplemented her income writing feature articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun. She began a fifteen-year career in the federal service as a scientist and editor in 1936 and rose to become chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and edited scientific articles, but in her free time turned her government research into lyric prose, first as an article “Undersea” (1937, for the Atlantic Monthly), and then in a book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941). In 1952 she published her prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us, which was followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955. These books constituted a biography of the ocean and made Carson famous as a naturalist and science writer for the public. Carson resigned from government service in 1952 to devote herself to her writing.
She wrote several other articles designed to teach people about the wonder and beauty of the living world, including “Help Your Child to Wonder,” (1956) and “Our Ever-Changing Shore” (1957), and planned another book on the ecology of life. Embedded within all of Carson’s writing was the view that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly.
Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II, Carson reluctantly changed her focus in order to warn the public about the long term effects of misusing pesticides. In Silent Spring (1962) she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world.
Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment.
Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all its creatures.
Biographical Essay by Linda Lear, c.2000 Rachelcarson.org.