Women of Wednesday: Rachel Carson - Passionate Woman, Powerful Words
This Wednesday as the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico continues, the woman on my mind is Rachel Carson. Born in 1907, she had worked for the US Fisheries Agency for years before publishing her first books in the 1950s, and was a best-selling author when she turned her pen to the looming crisis of pesticides in the environment. I remember the sense of foreboding that the cover of Silent Spring evoked (I was way too young to read the book in 1962) and the way it changed our thoughts about those aerial mosquito treatments when the notices from the town warned us to stay inside.
Rachel’s life will sound familiar to most of us – a child who began writing almost as soon as she could read, who wrote essays and magazine articles throughout the years she worked at her “day job,” not actually becoming a “full-time” writer until after two of her books had become best-sellers. She supported her mother and sisters, and later adopted her orphaned nephew and cared for her aged mother. So few women writers ever have the luxury of “just writing.” And yet Rachel did not allow her busy-ness to interfere with the things she was passionate about, keeping up with her research and her writing along with the demands of her life. She maintained her passion in the face of rejection and dismissive responses, sounding the warning cry about wide-spread use of wartime chemicals as pesticides during the heyday of “better living through chemistry.” The well-funded attacks on her research and her credentials sounds eerily familiar, even today.
Ironically, considering that much of Carson’s research had been into the carcinogenic effects of pesticides in the environment, she developed breast cancer while she was writing Silent Spring and succumbed to it in 1964, 6 years before the establishing of the Environmental Protection Agency and a decade before the phase-out of routine use of DDT. Her legacy continues, however, and today it is taken for granted that the government has some responsibility to protect the environment and the public from toxins and pollutants.