DDT Doesn’t Belong on Your Cereal
Rachel Carson through the eyes of a young girl
The following was written by a young girl who was inspired by the story of Rachel Carson after seeing her name on a road sign near her house. The discoveries became a video on the My Girl Heroes YouTube channel.
Special guest post by Guenevere C.S.
Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, on a family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania, and earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in June 1932.
Her first job was only a temporary position at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries where she created scripts for radio programs and brochures that highlighted their work with fish habitats that few people knew about. Eventually, in 1936, she was hired full time as a junior aquatic biologist and was only the second woman ever hired by the Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time position.
Rachel continued to work for the Bureau of Fisheries during World War 2 and into the 1950s and also found success publishing books and articles that began to get her noticed by regular people.
Rachel was kinda lucky too because after World War 2 there weren’t many jobs for naturalists since most of the money went to the sciences and technologies that exploded after the Manhattan Project.
Rachel was best known at the time for the book The Sea Around Us which was on The New York Times Best Seller list for 86 weeks and had chapters published in newspapers and magazines all over. Then in 1953 the book was turned into a documentary and won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Seeing her work get an award was great but she HATED how unscientific the final film was and called it a cross between a believe-it-or-not and a breezy travelogue.
Fortunately, all of this attention would eventually turn to something that would make her the hero we know today.
In the late 1950’s, Rachel began paying close attention to the huge pesticide spraying programs funded by the US government. At the time, everyone was excited about the promise of these new miracle chemicals that saved valuable crops from pests, but what she found would change her life and shock the world into action.
Rachel published her most famous book, Silent Spring, in 1962. It was all about the harmful effects of overusing pesticides on the environment. The book and the public reaction it kicked off was such a huge deal that it’s considered the start of the environmental movement in the United States.
You see, at the time, farmers were only told about the benefits of the chemical pesticides and knew nothing about the side effects. This was mostly because the scientists and chemical companies creating them didn’t want to talk about any harmful effects that might discourage farmers from using them.
So everyone using these great new chemicals assumed that if a little pesticide is good then A TON is even better. The chemical companies loved this because it was making them millions of dollars and the large government-funded programs encouraged their widespread use.
Rachel pointed out that over-spraying of chemicals like DDT was causing an environmental disaster.
At the time no one really knew what the side effects would be but we soon found out that the claims in her book that DDT and other pesticides were causing cancer in animals and humans and wiping out millions of birds were absolutely true.
One thing that really upset Americans in the years after her book was published was that DDT threatened the main symbol of the United States itself: The Bald Eagle.
DDT was sprayed so far and wide that it was getting into the bald eagle’s blood. The chemical thinned out their egg shells so much that when the mother eagles tried to incubate the eggs, they smashed under their weight, killing the babies.
The Bald Eagle, the symbol of the United States was going to disappear.
Oh Man, talk about symbolism!
Silent Spring directly accused the chemical industry of purposely spreading lies about their products and criticized public officials of accepting the lies without discussion.
Of course, chemical companies weren’t just going to sit back and let some woman destroy their profits. Before the book was even published, the chemical companies threatened to sue the publisher and all the newspapers and magazines that were planning to reprint parts of the book unless they cancelled it.
When the book finally hit the bookstores, boy, did it really upset the apple cart!
The chemical industry gave out pamphlets and brochures about how great their chemicals were in order to stop people from believing what they read in the book.
When that didn’t work, they attacked Rachel herself. The chemists and companies making a living off creating and manufacturing toxic pesticides like DDT called her a fanatic and tried to discredit her by saying she wasn’t a real scientist.
They even went so far as to tell people that because she was an attractive woman who had never married she was “probably a Communist.” This sounds kinda funny now, but at the time it was a terrible thing to say and labelling people as communists had destroyed a lot of innocent lives.
Because Rachel heavily researched the claims in her book, asked for peer reviews and followed the scientific method herself, her conclusions were very hard for the industry and government to argue against.
The public was convinced and people demanded that something had to be done.
The government gave into the pressure and began to curb and regulate the most dangerous chemical pesticides.
Sadly, Rachel wouldn’t live long enough to see the results of her work.
Rachel had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960 and by 1963 her illness made it impossible to travel and give interviews.
Just before her death, she received a landslide of great honors such as the Audubon Medal and the Cullum Geographical Medal, plus she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
When Rachel died on April 14, 1964, the chemical industry no longer had to fight the woman they hated and vilified, but her legacy continued to make it very hard for them to push dangerous, untested pesticides on the public.
In the decades after her sudden death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and had a college named after her, which was the first college ever to be named after a woman.
Her birthplace was added to the National Register of Historic Places. There are hiking trails and bridges named after her. And public schools across the country are named in her honor, two research ships are called the Rachel Carson, as well as numerous conservation areas, parks and institutional prizes around the world.
There’s even a road near my house named in her honor.
Rachel, thank you for inspiring girls like me to stand up for what is right.
You are MY GIRL HERO!