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Rachel Carson's Obituary


Rachel Louise Carson

Born: May 27, 1907
Springdale, PA
Died: April 11, 1964
Silver Spring, MD


Rachel Carson, the biologist and writer on nature and science, whose book "Silent Spring" touched off a major controversy on the effects of pesticides, died yesterday in her home in Silver Spring, Md. She was 56 years old.

Her death was reported in New York by Marie Rodell, her literary agent. Miss Rodell said that Miss Carson had had cancer "for some years," and that she had been aware of her illness.

With the publication of "Silent Spring" in 1962, Rachel Louise Carson, the essence of gentle scholarship, set off a nationally publicized struggle between the proponents and opponents of the widespread use of poisonous chemicals to kill insects. Miss Carson was an opponent.

Some of Miss Carson's critics, admiringly and some not so admiringly, compared her to Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding temperance advocate.

This comparison was rejected quietly by Miss Carson, who in her very mild but firm manner refused to accept the identification of an emotional crusader.

Miss Carson's position, as a biologist, was simply that she was a natural scientist in search of truth and that the indiscriminate use of poisonous chemical sprays called for public awareness of what was going on.

She emphasized that she was not opposed to the use of poisonous chemical sprays--only their "indiscriminate use," and, at a time when their potential was not truly known.

Quoting Jean Rostand, the French writer and biologist, she said: "The obligation to endure gives us the right to know."

On April 3, 1963, the Columbia Broadcasting System's television series "C.B.S. Reports" presented the program "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson." In it, Miss Carson said:

"It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.

"We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature.

"But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. The rains have become an instrument to bring down from the atmosphere the deadly products of atomic explosions. Water, which is probably our most important natural resource, is now used and re-used with incredible recklessness.

"Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."

3 Earlier Works

Miss Carson, thanks to her remarkable knack for taking dull scientific facts and translating them into poetical and lyrical prose that enchanted the lay public, had a substantial public image before she rocked the American public and much of the world with "Silent Spring."

This was established by three books, "Under the Sea Wind," "The Sea Around Us," and "The Edge of the Sea." "The Sea Around Us" moved quickly into the national best-seller lists, where it remained for 86 weeks, 39 of them in first place. By 1962 it had been published in 30 languages.

"Silent Spring," four-and-a-half years in preparation and published in September of 1962, hit the affluent chemical industry and the general public with the devastating effect of a Biblical plague of locusts. The title came from an apocalyptic opening chapter, which pictured how an entire area could be destroyed by indiscriminate spraying.

Legislative bodies ranging from New England town meetings to the Congress joined in the discussion. President Kennedy, asked about the pesticide problem during a press conference, announced that Federal agencies were taking a closer look at the problem because of the public's concern.

The essence of the debate was: Are pesticides publicly dangerous or aren't they?

They Should Be Called Biocide

Miss Carson's position had been summarized this way:

"Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world--the very nature of life.

"Since the mid-nineteen forties, over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as pests, and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

"The sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes--non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the good and the bad, to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams--to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in soil--all this, though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects.

"Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called 'insecticides' but 'biocides'."

The chemical industry was quick to dispute this.

Dr. Robert White-Stevens, a spokesman for the industry, said:

"The major claims of Miss Rachel Carson's book, 'Silent Spring,' are gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific, experimental evidence, and general practical experience in the field. Her suggestion that pesticides are in fact biocides destroying all life is obviously absurd in the light of the fact that without selective biologicals these compounds would be completely useless.

"The real threat, then, to the survival of man is not chemical but biological, in the shape of hordes of insects that can denude our forests, sweep over our crop lands, ravage our food supply and leave in their wake a train of destitution and hunger, conveying to an undernourished population the major diseases scourges of mankind."

The Monsanto Company, one of the nation's largest chemical concerns, used parody as a weapon in the counterattack against Miss Carson. Without mentioning her book, the company adopted her poetic style in an article labeled "The Desolate Year," which began: "Quietly, then, the desolate year began . . ." and wove its own apocalyptic word picture--but one that showed insects stripping the countryside and winning.

As the chemical industry continued to make her a target for criticism, Miss Carson remained calm.

"We must have insect control," she reiterated. "I do not favor turning nature over to insects. I favor the sparing, selective and intelligent use of chemicals. It is the indiscriminate, blanket spraying that I oppose."

Actually, chemical pest control has been practiced to some extent for centuries. However, it was not until 1942 that DDT, a synthetic compound, was introduced in the wake of experiments that included those with poison gas. Its long-term poisonous potency was augmented by its ability to kill some insects upon contact and without being ingested. This opened a new era in pest control and led to the development of additional new synthetic poisons far more effective even than DDT.

As the pesticide controversy grew into a national quarrel, support was quick in going to the side of Miss Carson.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an ardent naturalist, declared, "We need a Bill of Rights against the 20th century poisoners of the human race."

Earlier, an editorial in The New York Times had said:

"If her series [then running in part in The New Yorker publication of the book] helps arouse public concern to immunize Government agencies against the blandishments of the hucksters and enforces adequate controls, the author will be as deserving of the Nobel Prize as was the inventor of DDT."

Presidential Report

In May 1963, after a long study, President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee, issued its pesticide report.

It stressed that pesticides must be used to maintain the quality of the nation's food and health, but it warned against their indiscriminate use. It called for more research into potential health hazards in the interim, urged more judicious care in the use of pesticides in homes and in the field.

The committee chairman, Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner, said the uncontrolled use of poisonous chemicals, including pesticides, was "potentially a much greater hazard" than radioactive fallout.

Miss Carson appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, which was hearing testimony on the Chemical Pesticides Coordination Act, and a bill that would require labels to tell how to avert damage to fish and wildlife.

"I suggest," she said, "that the report by the President's Science Advisors has created a climate in which creation of a Pesticide Commission within the Executive Department might be considered."

One of the sparks that caused Miss Carson to undertake the task of writing the book (whose documentation alone fills a list of 55 pages of sources), was a letter she had received from old friends, Stuart and Olga Huckins. It told of the destruction of aerial spraying had caused to their two-acre private sanctuary at Powder Point in Duxbury, Mass.

Miss Carson, convinced that she must write about the situation and particularly about the effects of spraying on ecological factors, found an interested listener in Paul Brooks, editor in chief of the Houghton-Mifflin Company, the Boston publishing house that had brought out "The Edge of the Sea."

As to her own writing habits, Miss Carson once wrote for 20th Century Authors:

"I write slowly, often in longhand, with frequent revision. Being sensitive to interruption, I write most freely at night.

"As a writer, my interest is divided between the presentation of facts and the interpretation of their significance, with emphasis, I think toward the latter."

"Silent Spring" became a best seller even before its publication date because its release date was broken. It also became a best seller in England after its publication there in March, 1963.

One of Miss Carson's greatest fans, according to her agent, Marie Rodell, was her mother. Miss Rodell recalled that the mother, who died of pneumonia and a heart ailment in 1960, had sat in the family car in 1952 writing letters while Miss Carson and Miss Rodell explored the sea's edge near Boothbay Harbor. To passers-by the mother would say, pointing, "That's my daughter, Rachel Carson. She wrote 'The Sea Around Us.'"

People remembered Miss Carson for her shyness and reserve as well as for her writing and scholarship. And so when she received a telephone call after the publication of "The Sea Around Us," asking her to speak in the Astor Hotel at a luncheon, she asked Miss Rodell what she should do.

The agent counseled her to concentrate on writing. Miss Carson nodded in agreement, went to the phone, and shortly came back and said somewhat helplessly: "I said I'd do it."

There were 1,500 persons at the luncheon, Miss Carson was "scared to death," but she plunged into the talk and acquitted herself. As part of her program she played a recording of the sounds of underseas, including the clicking of shrimp and the squeeks of dolphins and whales. With the ice broken as a public speaker, Miss Carson continued with others sporadically.

Did Research by Herself

Miss Carson had some preliminary help in researching "Silent Spring" but soon found that she could go faster by doing the work herself because she could skim past so much that she already knew.

Miss Carson had few materialistic leanings. When she found "The Sea Around Us" was a great financial success, her first extravagance was the purchase of a very fine binocular- microscope, which she had always wanted. Her second luxury was the summer cottage on the Maine coast.

Her agent said that Miss Carson's work was her hobby but that she was very fond of her flower garden at Silver Spring, Md., where she also loved to watch the birds that came to visit.

Miss Carson had two favorite birds, a member of the thrush family called the veery, and the tern, a small, black-capped gull-like bird with swallowlike forked tails.

She once told an interviewer that she was enchanted by the "haunting, mystical call" of the veery, which is found in moist woods and bottomlands from Newfoundland to southern Manitoba, and in mountains to northern Georgia.

In manner, Miss Carson was a small, solemn-looking woman with the steady forthright gaze of a type that is sometimes common to thoughtful children who prefer to listen rather than to talk. She was politely friendly but reserved and was not given to quick smiles or to encouraging conversation even with her fans.

The most recent flare-up in the continuing pesticide controversy occurred early this month when the Public Health Service announced that the periodic huge-scale deaths of fish on the lower Mississippi River had been traced over the last four years to toxic ingredients in three kinds of pesticides. Some persons believed that the pesticides drained into the river from neighboring farm lands.

A hearing by the Agriculture Department of the Public Health Service's charges ended a week ago with a spokesman for one of the pesticide manufacturers saying that any judgment should be delayed until more information was obtained.

Miss Carson was born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pa., the daughter of Robert Warden Carson and the former Maria McLean. She was brought up in Springdale and in nearby Parnassus.

She owed her love of nature in large measure to her mother, who once wrote in The Saturday Review of Literature, that she had taught her daughter "as a tiny child joy in the out-of-doors and the lore of birds, insects, and residents of streams and ponds." She was a rather solitary child. She never married.

After being graduated from Parnassus High School, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women at Pittsburgh with the intention of making a career of writing. First she specialized in English composition. Later biology fascinated her and she switched to that field, going on to graduate work at Johns Hopkins University.

She then taught for seven consecutive sessions at the Johns Hopkins Summer School. In 1931 she became a member of the zoology staff of the University of Maryland. She remained five years. Her Master of Arts degree was conferred by Johns Hopkins in 1932.

Meanwhile, a childhood curiosity about the sea stayed with her. She absorbed all that she could read about the biology of the sea and she undertook post-graduate work at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., at Cape Cod.

In 1936 she was offered a position as aquatic biologist with the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington. She continued with the bureau and its successor, the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1937, an article, "Undersea," in Atlantic led to her first book, "Under the Sea Wind," in 1941, and this was followed by her appointment as editor in chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service--blending her two worlds: biology and writing.

"The Sea Around Us," published in 1951, made her world famous, and she received numerous honors. They included the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, the John Burroughs Medal, the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia and the National Book Award.

Meanwhile, in 1952, she resigned from her government post to continue her writing. She was no armchair naturalist. To gain experience the hard way, she once sailed in a fishing trawler to the rugged Georges Banks off the Massachusetts coast. "The Edge of the Sea" was published in 1955, and before long she was at work researching material for "Silent Spring."

Miss Carson leaves a brother, Robert M. Carson, and an adopted son, Roger Christie, who was her grandnephew.

Funeral plans were incomplete last night.

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