Saturday, November 3, 2012

171: The Self-Empowered Woman: Rachel Carson

Dear Followers:

The next time you shop at Whole Foods and/or buy organic produce, you'll be honoring the legacy of the woman pictured above, Rachel Carson.  Born in 1907, in Spingdale, Pennsylvania, she was a shy (but brilliant) nature advocate and award winning author.

She grew up on a small (65 acres) family farm, and spent much of her childhood exploring the outdoors.  An avid reader, she wrote her first animal story when she was eight years old, and her first story was published when she was eleven (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

Carson graduated from high school at the top of her class of 45 students, and enrolled at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) where she first majored in English, but later switched to Biology.  In 1929, she graduated magna cum laude (10: The Critic Within).

Financial pressures plagued her, and she had to postpone attending Johns Hopkins University because she didn't have enough money.  When she finally was able to attend graduate school, she was only able to be a part-time student because she had to work to earn money for tuition.  She received her master's in Zoology in 1932, and had planned to work on her doctorate, but had to look for a full-time teaching position to help support her family.  In 1935, her father died suddenly and Carson had to care for her aging mother (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

She took a temporary job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and was responsible for writing radio copy about aquatic life and fish biology.  In order to be eligible for the first full-time position within the bureau, she sat for the civil service exam and outscored all the other applicants.  In 1936, she became only the second woman to be hired for a full-time position by the Bureau of Fisheries (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Money remained an issue when, in 1937, her older sister died--this meant Carson was responsible for her mother and her two nieces.  To augment her salary, Carson wrote articles for newspapers and magazines. One of those articles turned into her first book, Under the Sea Wind, which was published in 1941.

Although she wouldn't publish anything about DDT until 1962, she began studying the effects of the "insect bomb" in 1945.  Her second book, The Sea Around Us, became a huge hit--it was on the New York Times best seller list for 86 weeks, and won the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

In 1957, one of the nieces she had cared for in the 1940s died at the age of 31, leaving a five year old orphaned son.  Carson adopted the little boy while continuing to care for her mother.

In 1957, the U.S.D.A. began a "fire ant eradication program," which involved aerial spraying of DDT and other pesticides mixed with fuel oils.  At the same time, the "Great Cranberry Scandal" was the result of toxic herbicides ruining the 1957, 1958 and 1959 crops of American cranberries.  Carson argued that pesticides were really "biocides" because they affected entire Eco systems. 

Carson knew that her findings were based "on an unshakable foundation," but she was also aware that powerful forces would demonize her.  Friends warned her that she was playing with fire, but (in her words) "Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent" (11: Risk Addiction).

When Silent Spring was published in 1962, there was strong opposition from DuPont and other chemical manufacturers.  The former Secretary of Agriculture wrote a letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower suggesting that Carson was "probably a communist"  (5:Life is Not a Popularity Contest).  In spite of all her critics, President John F. Kennedy appointed a committee to study the effects of pesticides. 

As if Carson did not have enough struggles with her family obligations and her controversial scientific findings, she also faced a barrage of medical issues.  She had an ulcer, pneumonia, a staph infection, and phlebitis in her legs as well as two tumors in her left breast--one of which was malignant and spread to her lymph nodes and her liver (12: Hard Times).

By 1970, the Federal Government created the Environmental Protection Agency, and ten years later she was given (posthumously) the Presidential Medal of Freedom (8: Turning No Into Yes).  She died in 1964, when she was only 56 years old.

2007 was the centennial of Carson's birth, and Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland planned to submit a resolution honoring her "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility."  The resolution was blocked by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma who said "The junk science and stigma surrounding DDT--the cheapest and most effective insecticide on the planet--have finally been jettisoned."

Looking forward to your comments...

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