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Rachel Carson

Marine biologist and writer who was part of the Great Environmental Awakening movement

A handwritten cursive manuscript from an early draft of The Sense of Wonder (1965)
Courtesy of Carson Archives

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, environmentalist, conservationist, and writer during the Great Environmental Awakening (1960-1973). She is known best for Silent Spring (1962) that challenged the use of chemical pesticides, including Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and its impact on wildlife on the land and in the sea. 

Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in Springdale, PA and grew up surrounded by the woods on her family’s farm. Her mother influenced her to explore the natural world around her, coinciding with Rachel’s growing passion for writing. 

As a young adult, Carson studied English at Pennsylvania College for Women (today’s Chatham University) before switching to biology. After graduating in 1925, she spent six weeks at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA. She would return to MBL for further work in research while in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University studying zoology. She also worked at the Woods Hole Fisheries Laboratories (today’s NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center). After graduation Carson wanted to complete a PhD, but due to the Great Depression she left the program to financially support her family. 

Rachel Carson in Woods Hole, 1929.

In 1935, Carson started working in the public education department of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (today’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in Washington D.C. For the next 15 years, she was a scientist, editor, and editor-in-chief of the publications of the bureau. She earned the title junior aquatic biologist in 1936, where she was one of two women professionals in the organization.

Rachel Carson at the dock in Woods Hole, MA in 1951.

After the Great Depression, Carson started to work on her first series of books, the trilogy written before Silent Spring: Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955). The non-fiction books were highly praised and won numerous awards, including the National Book Award and captivated people about the ocean. 

It was Silent Spring that gave her mainstream fame and launched an environmental movement. She was inspired to create this groundbreaking writing after seeing a pattern of wildlife loss in her Fish and Wildlife reports. It was a call for change in order to prevent the loss of  the beauty and resources of the environment. Additionally, she wrote and promoted the book while battling breast cancer. President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee accepted her scientific findings and her writings were partially responsible for President Richard Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protect Agency in 1970. In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States. 

Facing criticism and harsh attacks from the chemical industries, being thrust into the spotlight, and becoming the face of a movement, Carson continued her cancer fight. Sadly, she died due to cancer on April 14, 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is buried at Parklawn Memorial Park in Rockville, Maryland and in 1980 was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1965, her final book, The Sense of Wonder was published. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine in 1966 that protects valuable salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds. A memorial for her sits in front of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory’s Waterfront Park.

A life-size bronze statue of Rachel Carson in the Marine Biological Laboratory’s (MBL) Waterfront Park.

Her legacy continues from her books educating people about the natural world through her unique prose and environmentalism, but she wanted to be remembered more for her love and work for the sea.