Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson (1907–1964) was an American biologist and writer, whose books became catalysts for advancing the global environmental movement.

Featuring artwork & words by Dr. Eleonora Adami, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

I have recently visited the “Planet or Plastic” exhibition by National Geographic at the Artscience museum in Singapore.
Normally I’d write “if you happen to pass by Singapore in the next few months, do check it out”…but unfortunately, with a pandemic in progress, no one is casually passing by anywhere these days.
So, excuse the little digression, let me get back to the point. I really enjoyed the exhibition, which takes the visitor all the way from the invention of plastic as a new material, the ways it was employed during WWII, how it contributed to advancement of fields like medicine, to the tragedy of the ecological disaster we are now facing. One sentence absolutely shocked me, even though I kind of knew it already: by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Then I started thinking how all must have looked back in the 1950s…could someone anticipate this catastrophe? How aware was (and is) the general public about environmental issues?

Then one name popped to mind: Rachel Carson.

Yes! I guess Rachel is to the 1950s, what Greta represents for us today: Someone who believes in science and gives people a wake up call about various issues related to our life on this planet.

Rachel Carson — Wikimedia Commons

Early years and the beginnings at the Bureau of Fisheries

Rachel was born in 1907 near Pittsburgh. She was an avid reader and began writing stories about animals at age 8. At the Pennsylvania College for Women she originally studied English and later switched her major to biology.

After graduation in 1929, she attended a summer course at the Marine Biological Laboratory, and later continued her studies in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins. Rachel then earned a master’s degree in zoology in 1932 and was determined to pursue a doctorate, but with the economic crash of the Great Depression and the sudden death of her father she decided to leave Johns Hopkins to search for a full-time teaching position to help support her family. She found a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Her job was to write copy for a series of short educational radio broadcasts, entitled “Romance Under the Waters”.

She also began submitting articles based on her research for the series to local newspapers and magazines. The radio series was a success and in 1936, Rachel became the second woman hired by the Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time professional position (junior aquatic biologist).

Rachel Carson Conducts Marine Biology Research with Bob Hines in the Atlantic (1952) — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Rachel rose within the Bureau — renamed US Fish and Wildlife Service — first by supervising a small writing staff and then in 1949 becoming chief editor of publications.

The Oxford University Press expressed interest in her proposal for a book about life history of the Ocean, which then became the 1951 national bestseller “The Sea Around Us”. 9 chapters were serialized in The New Yorker which had a vast readership, and the book won her several prizes, recognition and financial security. She was highly appreciated because her prose combined an elegant style with scientific accuracy and thoroughness.

Conservation work and Silent Spring

After a trilogy exploring ocean life, Rachel focused her attention towards topics of conservation and the impact that humans had on the natural world. She had already shown a surprisingly modern view of the interdependency of biological and ecological systems. In her work, we can already read about climate change, rising sea levels, loss of wildlife….and some of us, today, still try to negate all this. But it was her work on the ignorant misuse of organic chemical pesticides, such as DDT, that brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented share of the public. The book Silent Spring (1962) challenged the anthropocentric assumption that we can dominate nature, decide what lives or dies (think about modern day problems such as the deforestation of the Amazon, the huge problem of plastic…have we learnt something?), and was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies. In one of her last public appearances, Rachel testified before President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee. The committee issued its report on May 1963, largely backing her scientific claims. She introduced the concept that pollutants can accumulate in the environment and in various organisms over time (bioaccumulation) and toxic chemicals increase in concentration in each organism up the food chain (biomagnification). Weakened from breast cancer, Rachel died in 1964, but her words continued to inspire discussions that led to new policies that protect our air, water, and, ultimately, our health. In US, thanks to grass-root movements spurred by her books, the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

“Silent Spring altered the balance of power in the world. No-one since would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically.”

H. Patricia Hynes — Environmental engineer and Carson scholar

Smithsonian Institution Archives — SIA2008–0392

TIMELINE

1907 — Born in the countryside near Springdale, Pennsylvania
1929 — Bachelor’s degree
1932 — Master’s degree in zoology
1936 — Becomes the second woman hired by the Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time professional position
1949 — Becomes chief editor of publications at the US Fish and Wildlife Service
1951 — Publication of the national bestseller “The Sea Around Us”
1962 — Publication of her most influential book “Silent Spring”
1964 — Dies in Silver Spring Maryland
2012 — Silent Spring was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society (AMC) for its role in the development of the modern environmental movement.

REFs/If you want to know more

About the author and artist

DR. ELEONORA ADAMI

Content editor and contributing artist
Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Eleonora is a proud descendant of ancient Romans. Besides that, she is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Duke-NUS in Singapore, working in the cardiovascular and metabolic diseases area. She has a biotechnology (BSc) and functional genomics (MSc) background, and has obtained her PhD in molecular biology and genetics in Germany before going to the far east.

Eleonora thinks of herself as a carrier pigeon, always on the go, trying to find new adventures and challenges. Ok, maybe pigeons are not very adventurous, but they were once useful to deliver important messages. One of the messages she likes to bring across is that we need more art in scientific practices. Creative thinking benefits both disciplines.
A passion for illustration has always accompanied her and percolates in her scientific work. She started the collaboration with the Sci-Illustrate team after attending their course on scientific illustration.

About this series:

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

-Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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