Rachel Carson Biography: Environmentalist Author


American marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, Maryland, September 24, 1962

Alfred Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Known for: writing Silent Spring, motivating environmentalist movement of the late 1960s and early 70s

Dates: May 27, 1907 - April 14, 1964
Occupation: writer, scientist, ecologist, environmentalist, marine biologist
Also known as: Rachel Louise Carson

Rachel Carson Biography:

Rachel Carson was born and grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. Her mother, Maria Frazier McLean, was a teacher, and well educated. Rachel Carson's father, Robert Warden Carson, was a salesperson who was often unsuccessful.

birthplace and childhood home of Rachel Carson in Springdale, Pennsylvania
The birthplace and childhood home of Rachel Carson in Springdale, Pennsylvania is now on the National Register of Historic Places. ccbarr / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

She dreamed of becoming a writer, and as a child, wrote stories about animals and birds. She had her first story published in St. Nicholas when she was 10. She attended high school in Parnassas, Pennsylvania.

Carson enrolled at the Pennsylvania College for Women (which later became Chatham College) in Pittsburgh. She changed her major from English after taking a required biology course. She went on to complete an M.A. at Johns Hopkins University.

Rachel Carson's father died in 1935, and she supported and lived with her mother from that time until her mother's death in 1958. In 1937 her sister died, and the sister's two daughters moved in with Rachel and her mother. She abandoned further graduate work to support her family.

Early Career

Rachel Carson in 1944
Rachel Carson in 1944. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / public domain

During summers, Carson had worked at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, and taught at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins. In 1936, she took a job as a writer with the US Bureau of Fisheries (which later became the US Fish and Wildlife Service). Over the years she was promoted to staff biologist, and, in 1949, chief editor of all the Fish and Wildlife Service's publications.

First Book

Carson began writing magazine pieces about science to supplement her income. In 1941, she adapted one of those articles into a book, Under the Seawind, in which she tried to communicate the beauty and wonder of the oceans.

First Bestseller

After the war ended, Carson had access to formerly classified scientific data about the oceans, and she worked for several years on another book. When The Sea Around Us was published in 1951, it became a bestseller -- 86 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, 39 weeks as the top seller. In 1952, she resigned from the Fish and Wildlife Service to focus on her writing, her editorial duties having slowed her writing production considerably.

Rachel Carson and Bob Hines conducting marine biology research in Florida
Rachel Carson and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service colleague in Florida in 1952 conducting marine biology research. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / public domain

Another Book

In 1955, Carson published The Edge of the Sea. While successful -- 20 weeks on the best-seller list -- it did not do as well as her previous book.

Family Matters

Some of Carson's energies went into more family matters. In 1956, one of her nieces died, and Rachel adopted her niece's son. And in 1958, her mother died, leaving the son in Rachel's sole care.

Silent Spring

In 1962, Carson's next book was published: Silent Spring. Carefully researched over 4 years, the book documented the dangers of pesticides and herbicides. She showed the long-lasting presence of toxic chemicals in water and on land and the presence of DDT even in mother's milk, as well as the threat to other creatures, especially songbirds.

After Silent Spring

Despite a full-scale assault from the agricultural chemical industry, which called the book everything from "sinister" and "hysterical" to "bland," the public's concern was raised. President John F. Kennedy read Silent Spring and initiated a presidential advisory committee. In 1963, CBS produced a television special featuring Rachel Carson and several opponents of her conclusions. The US Senate opened an investigation of pesticides.

DDT sprayed in 1958, part of the National Malaria Eradication Program
Use of DDT was finally banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention / public domain

In 1964, Carson died of cancer in Silver Spring, Maryland. Just before she died, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But she was not able to see the changes that her helped produce.

After her death, an essay she'd written was published in book form as Sense of Wonder.

See also: Rachel Carson Quotes

Rachel Carson Bibliography

• Linda Lear, ed. Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. 1998.

• Linda Lear. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. 1997.

• Martha Freeman, ed. Always Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. 1995.

• Carol Gartner. Rachel Carson. 1993.

• H. Patricia Hynes. The Recurring Silent Spring. 1989.

• Jean L. Latham. Rachel Carson Who Loved the Sea. 1973.

• Paul Brooks. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. 1972.

•Philip Sterling. Sea and Earth, the Life of Rachel Carson. 1970.

• Frank Graham, Jr. Since Silent Spring. 1970.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Rachel Carson Biography: Environmentalist Author." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/rachel-carson-biography-3528617. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, September 2). Rachel Carson Biography: Environmentalist Author. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rachel-carson-biography-3528617 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Rachel Carson Biography: Environmentalist Author." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rachel-carson-biography-3528617 (accessed June 9, 2023).