Rachel Carson: I knew her when...
I recently became aware that this is the centennial of the birth of Rachel Carson, the world-famed science writer and ecologist who was cited by Time Magazine as "one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century." Carson, who crusaded against the use of chemical pesticides in her classic book, The Silent Spring, was a pioneer in the rise of the environmental movement.
The centennial of her birth is being commemorated with observances around the country. The event has a special meaning to me because I knew and worked with Rachel Carson when she was unknown except to a small circle of colleagues. Over the years I was fascinated to watch her become an international celebrity, and I felt a vicarious sense of satisfaction that she achieved such great fame.
I knew her for only the 13 months during 1948 and 1949 when she and I were both employed in the Division of Information of the U.S. Dept. of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service. We both bore the same civil service job title, "information & editorial specialist (press & publications)".
But our professional status differed markedly. Carson, who was then 41, had a master's degree in zoology. She had been with the agency since 1936 as a writer and expert in marine biology and wildlife conservation. I was a 23-year old war veteran fresh out of journalism school and had no scientific credentials.
I had been hired for the government job in an unconventional manner. The information division's director, a onetime newspaperman who had formerly been the chief game warden in Alaska, spotted a situation-wanted ad that I had placed in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry's trade publication.
He apparently was impressed by my ad and hired me to write press releases about the agency's operations even though I had no background in wildlife matters. Indeed, my sole exposure to wildlife stemmed from childhood visits to the Bronx Zoo, which was located close to my home.
I was "displaced" from the job a year after being hired when the Civil Service Commission belatedly discovered that I lacked permanent civil service status. I was replaced by a man who was given preference as a "disabled" war veteran. (After six months Army service he had been discharged because of stomach ulcers; I had served three years, most of it overseas.)
While my job was writing press releases on such matters as the latest census of whooping cranes and trumpeter swans--both nearly extinct birds--the "harvesting" of Alaska fur-seals on the Pribilof Islands, and Federal duck-hunting regulations, Carson was in an adjoining office writing more detailed booklets on related subjects. The booklets were published by the U.S. Government Printing Office and were regarded as the "bibles" of the wildlife conservation movement.
Carson was a shy, spinsterish woman, and I never really got to know her very well. But she became my personal technical adviser as I consulted her regularly about the specialized matters that figured in my press releases.
Her FWS booklets were written in the bland, unadorned style that characterizes Federal Government publications. I never recognized her enormous talent as a gifted, poetic writer until 1951 when I read The Sea Around Us, which was serialized in The New Yorker before being published as a book.
The book explored the enormous mysteries of the sea, a subject with which she had become enchanted as a marine biology student in Woods Hole, Mass. It was written in an extraordinarily radiant style that I never imagined could be linked to scientific material. It won the National Book Award and sold more than 200,000 copies in hard cover.
I later learned that before achieving fame with her books, Carson was a prolific but unpublished writer of poetry. This clearly explained her ability to turn scientific matter into lyric prose. It was a talent that was not called for in the booklets she wrote for the Fish & Wildlife Service. In her private writing, however, she used this unique ability to present intricate scientific material in clear poetic language, captivating readers and stimulating their interest in the natural world.
That exceptional talent was displayed again in 1962 when her masterpiece, The Silent Spring, appeared, serialized again in The New Yorker before being published as a book. Her success with The Sea Around Us had induced her to resign from the Fish & Wildlife Service a decade earlier to devote herself to full-time private writing.
The Silent Spring argued that the profligate misuse of synthetic chemical pesticides was endangering human life and posed a severe hazard to the environment. Carson developed the idea for her book when a friend complained that pesticide spraying had killed the birds in her yard as well as the intended insects. Subsequent research revealed that long-lasting pesticides caused immense damage, including human physiological changes.
The book provoked a prolonged controversy with the chemical industry and agricultural interests who challenged Carson's claims. She was attacked as an alarmist, but her argument was so compelling that it led to the the creation of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, a government ban on the use of DDT, and widespread public concern about water and air pollution.
Carson died in 1964 at the age of 57 after a long battle with breast cancer. I have always considered it a privilege to have known and worked with her.