Tuesday, June 19, 2007

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.

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Blogger Ed Darrell said...

What a great story.

We know what happened to Carson -- what happened to you after you left Fish and Wildlife? I'll bet there's more to the story.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 8:12:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Wow! You knew Rachel Carson?!?! You are now my hero!

I wanted to re-read Silent Spring, but I couldn't get a copy in the local library. I may have to break down and buy a copy on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 10:34:00 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

Rachel Carson's misguided, poorly researched book, and the fundamentalist environmentalists who got DDT removed from the arsenal of weapons against the mosquito, are responsible for the deaths of more Africans than the 17th and 18th century slave trade. Malaria had all but been conquered; now it is killing about a million children a year.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 2:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I am trying to help stop attacks on Carson like the one "norma" made above. :(


(you can visit my blog and click on the "malaria" category for my work so far.)

Thursday, June 21, 2007 7:14:00 AM  
Blogger NCTC Librarian said...

We would love to have your participation in our Rachel Carson Centennial blog discussion which centers around her books and has a number of formidable moderators who lead the discussion. Please go to http://rcbookclub.blogspot.com and also to the book schedule at http://library.fws.gov/rcbookclub/schedule.html The “malaria topic” has been out there for discussion recently

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:41:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Mort, this invitation to you was left over at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub:
# Anne Roy Says:
June 26th, 2007 at 5:38 am e

Mort, we would love to have your participation in our Rachel Carson Centennial blog discussion which centers around her books and has a number of formidable moderators who lead the discussion. Please go to http://rcbookclub.blogspot.com and also to the book schedule at http://library.fws.gov/rcbookclub/schedule.html The “malaria topic” has been out there for discussion recently.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:54:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Norma, can you offer any example of poor research in Carson's book? Her conjectures on cancer, as it turns out, were not far off. Everything else was quite accurate. Whatever are you talking about?

Can you name for me any nation that has banned the use of DDT for use against mosquitoes where necessary to combat malaria? The WHO guidelines specifically exempt DDT from such bans, and I know of no nation that is not following the WHO guidelines (including the U.S.).

Malaria was killing about two million children a year prior to 1960 (the heyday of DDT). By 1960, DDT was ineffective against the most serious mosquito vectors for malaria -- can you cite for me any nation that stopped spraying with DDT because of a ban? I know of none -- as I noted, WHO guidelines leave it available.

And, to keep things nice here, why not come on over to Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, find a Rachel Carson post and leave the stuff there? (www.timpanogos.wordpress.com)


Tuesday, June 26, 2007 7:04:00 AM  
Blogger Norma said...

For Ed and Bug: Let's imagine 4 piles of bodies: 1) Those people killed by DDT over all the years it was being used to virtually wipe out malaria; 2) those people killed by malaria after DDT was removed from the market by environmentalist well-intentioned, but wrong headed pressures; 3) those people who will probably be injured by birth defects or die from sleeping on pesticide treated mats under pesticide treated nets in houses permiated with pesticides (the current treatment for malarial mosquitoes, rather than killing them at the source); and 4) those killed or injured by all the testing being done by pharmaceutical companies for malaria drugs, including children and pregnant women. I'll take pile #1. Your turn to choose.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 2:59:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

I enjoyed reading of your experience and perceptions about Rachel Carson, Mort. We're fortunate she was able to introduce environmental issues as matters about which we should all be thinking and acting. I particularly liked reading your assessments of her different writing styles informing each other. Interesting how she combined her poetic writing skills with her then scientific knowledge.

Saturday, June 30, 2007 1:22:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Norma, to suggest that DDT-impregnated nets under which people sleep would cause birth defects, but that spraying massive amounts of DDT that would give 20 or 30 times the dose won't, is one of the fantasies of the anti-environmental movement that reveals the lack of real thought in the anti-Rachel Carson campaign.

Rachel Carson was right. DDT was discontinued in no malaria fight anywhere because of a ban on DDT -- all the bans, including the POPS treaty, hold an exception for use against malaria.

Why isn't DDT more broadly used? It became ineffective against the worst forms of malaria early, and many nations that could have benefited did not have governments that functioned well enough to get a good anti-malaria effort going. Plus, the parasites have evolved immunity to the drugs, and that's not a problem DDT has anything to do with.

Had DDT continued to be used indiscriminatingly on crops, we'd have much greater plagues facing us now. Raptors eat rodents that eat grain and spread plague, typhus and hanta virus. While the rodents are not so affected by DDT, their predators are. Bats are traditional malaria barriers -- they eat mosquitoes. Bats are exceptionally susceptible to DDT poisoning. Once DDT played out against the insects AND the bats and songbirds that control the mosquitoes are gone, what then?

Mort well makes the case that Rachel Carson was a kind woman with a keen mind. And she was right on the science -- do I even need to point out that you have not cited a single case where she was wrong on the science? Carson was amazingly prescient.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger Sylvia K said...

I've read a good bit of your blog and must say you've had a marvelous and fascinating life and it makes me even more appreciative of your kind comments.

Thank you,

Sylvia Kirkwood

Wednesday, July 09, 2008 11:11:00 PM  

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