50 years on: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”

September 27, 2012 • 4:37 am

by Matthew Cobb

Over at The Guardian, Leo Hickman reminds us that 50 years ago today, Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring” was published, with an amazing first print run of 150,000 copies.  Carson’s dramatic ecological warning of the effects of insecticides on bird populations played an important part in bringing the problems of population, and the complexity of ecology, into the public domain.

Hickman has asked the great and the good to send him their views of the influence of the book, which makes for pretty interesting reading. He also has some telling and perceptive contemporary reviews, including this one from a personal hero of mine, W. H. Thorpe, one of the early pioneers of animal behaviour, and in particular of the studies of insects.

So, readers of WEIT: what are your memories/knowledge of Silent Spring? At home we had one on our shelves, which my mother must have bought (my father died in 1961). I never spoke to her about why she bought it, and she’s too old to remember now. To my childish mind, it formed part of the catastrophic sci fi literature of the 1950s and 1960s (Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, On the Beach, Canticle for Leibowitz etc), which I read and devoured. The difference was, this was real. And 50 years on, we can see the consequences, at least in the UK, where once-plentiful birds like sparrows and starlings have become rare, at the same time as many insects have declined. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but this link seems pretty compelling.

Rachel Carson herself I am amazed to learn, died in 1964, at the amazingly young age of 57 (she had a heart attack, but had been suffering from breast cancer). She was a marine biologist, who wrote popular books on conservation, and can be seen here doing field work in 1952:

File:Rachel Carson Conducts Marine Biology Research with Bob Hines.jpg

Carson was also a cat person, as this great pic from 24 September 1962 shows. The cute kitteh is called Moppet.

The book – which had an amazing print run of 150,000 copies – is still in print, though bibliophiles might prefer to pick up a first edition, which go for upward of $700. The top price on Abebooks.com (keep away from the website if you want to keep your bank balance) is $5500 for this copy, complete with signed card:

A Sunday newspaper cartoon marked Carson’s passing in a touching way in 1964:File:Gordocarson.jpg

Info and pics from Wikipedia, with the exception of the Moppet pic and the book pic (abebooks).
h/t to Bernard Leikind who pointed this out to Jerry, who asked me to post.

39 thoughts on “50 years on: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”

  1. I was a baby in Rhodesia(now Zimbabwe) in 1961, so I have no memories of the time. I don’t remember finding out about Silent Spring, it just slowly dawned on me that people had been talking about it my whole life and I finally realised what it was.
    Cute kitteh.

  2. I was a grad student (in math), and kept hearing discussions of the controversy that the book started. So I just had to read it. And it made an excellent case that resulted in important changes in how we look at our environment.

    And now the antedeluvian Republicans want to overturn all of that progress.

  3. I read it in primary school & it has been in my head ever since. I love that cartoon with the insects & flowers. That is just beautiful.
    She’s the reason I’ve never used pesticides in the garden.
    She’s one of my heroes & I hate seeing her work ignored and in small incremental ways, coming to pass.

  4. I was 14 when Silent Spring was published, but I read it later, when I was studying biology. That was (if I remember well) the first time that I realized how my view of nature was stupidly romantic: Mother Nature: invulnerable, inexhaustible, eternal and infinite. On the back cover of my copy was a quote (New York Times?) saying that the inventor of DDT was awarded the Nobel Prize – but that Rachel Carson also deserved a Nobel Prize for her courageous and pioneering book. Her book inspired me to join an environmental action group.

  5. My mother was an avid birder, and by 1960 (I was 10) the bluebirds that I vaguely remembered from our back yard 5yrs earlier had disappeared. So by the time I became aware of Silent Spring I was already aware of the problem.

    She was with the Bureau of Fisheries for 16yrs, largely as a writer, and if you’re lucky enough to have an opportunity to spend time at the successor Fish & Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia (right across the Potomac from Antietam), ask to see some of her things in their collection in the basement of the main building.

    (It’s hard to find much about the Center online – an underground redoubt for use in case of an attack on Washington is rumored to exist there, but if it does there are no overt signs of it.)

    Oh, and she was from N of Pittsburgh in Springdale. Her homestead is open to visitors now.

  6. I read this as a young teen in the 60’s and it, along with Thoreau’s Walden, had a huge effect on my life, turning me into an environmental activist. Matt, the evidence presented in the book was not just correlative. She popularized the finding that DDT was causing the decline of raptor populations by thinning their eggshells. Without a doubt, raptor populations in the developed world would have fallen to extinction or near-extinction levels had it not been for her book. Now DDT is prohibited in the US and many other countries, and the raptors have largely recovered, thanks almost entirely to the awareness raised by this book.

    She helped birth the (now virtually dead or derailed) environmental movement. She encouraged regular people to think like ecologists, seeing the relationships (often unpredictable) between organisms, and she warned that these relationships were very easy to disturb by our heavy-handed chemical manipulation of the environment. Our planet owes her a lot.

  7. I never read it but its influence was strong in the late 60s when I first became aware of the problems of pollution & habitat loss. I read ‘Under the Sea Wind’ when I was about 10, which is an absolutely beautifully written book.

    The loss of birds in the UK is not necessarily due to DDT though. Farming methods mean there are no weeds any more to sustain birds & insects with seeds; autumn sowing of winter wheat means there are no fields ‘at rest’; ditches were removed & land is plowed right to the edge of the field so there are no ‘margins’ for wildlife; hedges are flayed short where they were not rooted out in the 60s or 70s; wildflowers on verges are cut so there is no winter food/hiding place for insects. Where the insects decline the birds decline.

  8. I heard about Silent Spring on an Author Godfrey TV show, probably in the early sixties. Bought a copy, read it, and it influenced me to the point that I refuse, if at all possible, to kill Copper Head snakes that inhabit the woods around my house (much to the consternation of my neighbors; well, they are around all the houses in the neighborhood).

      1. 1. They are snakes.
        2. They are poisonous (pit vipers, though not as big or famous as rattlesnakes).
        3. They are beautiful, and rarely aggressive.

        After all, this IS the country that coined the phrase “Too lazy to kill a snake.”

  9. OK, before Jerry accuses me of using an ambiguous pronoun: the snakes are all around the neighborhood, as of course, are the people who live here!

  10. A wonderful biography of Rachel Carson was published several years ago, by Linda Lear; it seems to still be available. The title is Witness for Nature. Among other topics, it details all the opposition Carson dealt with, some of which, apropos of the discussions on women in science, had to do with her being female.

  11. I grew up in the everglades. We were poor and lived in a small block house. We had an out house and scorpions and lizards were always present. At no time as a child did I ever consider harming these creatures. To me they were life and life is precious.

  12. I was upset at how this book later became politicized and/or dismissed by ideological opponents. I actually didn’t become aware of the book till over 10 years after it was published.

  13. In the late 1970s, I was a student in entomology at a land grant university. I recall the Old Guard at coffee break complaining about Silent Spring and the loss of “all the damn-good chemicals” like DDT. Fifteen-plus years later, and Rachel Carson was still the devil incarnate.. Tea Party science!

    1. I wish I had read your account before posting my own (below). I could have written mine to, sort of, expand on yours or corroborate.

  14. My first exposure to Silent Spring was around 1990. I was enrolled in an ‘engineering ethics’ class at The University of Texas. It turns out that the class had little to do with ethics. It was exclusively a hard-line conservative look at environmental concerns, with a consistent theme of exoneration for engineers. Environmental disasters caused by irresponsible resource management were spun into engineering triumphs. I wish I had known enough then to declare bullshit loudly.

    Silent Spring was held up as an example of manipulative writing, an appeal to emotion. We “learned” that DDT wasn’t really harmful, and that Carson had delivered to humanity a sort of social disease called “environmentalism”, that we (as upcoming engineers) will labor in our careers to counteract.

    The class was appalling. It was like watching Faux News for three hours’ credit.

  15. I read Silent Spring (and the apocalyptic SciFi literature mentioned) in high school. Silent Spring fit right in with what I was learning at a local nature center where I took classes and volunteered. I didn’t gain from it new conclusions so much as an appreciation of the body of evidence behind the concerns.

    When I was a freshman in college, a spokesman for the chemical industry was invited to give a talk refuting Carson’s book. Among many other points that I have forgotten, he stated that Carson must be wrong because the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts reported higher and higher numbers of birds each year. I was so shocked at this misuse of the raw numbers* that I commented aloud, “No! You can’t do that!” I was shushed, of course, and he certainly didn’t call on me during the Q&A session afterwards. Way to create instant distrust of the chemical industry, spokesman!

    *More people were participating in the CBC each year, and birds were being counted in more areas. Therefore, to figure out trends in bird populations you have to correct the raw numbers for number of participants, time spent counting, etc.

    1. Corio,

      No. Rachel Carson had nothing to do with the failure of the malaria eradication program. In the late ’50s it was proposed that malaria could be eradicated by stopping transmission of malaria by mosquitoes by measures such as spraying of internal walls with DDT and aggressively treating all cases of human malaria over a period of 4 years.

      So the American Congress generously funded the program in 1958, the money set to run out in 1963, after which the occasional rare case of malaria could be managed by the countries’ health systems without additional funding.

      The Americans could have continued to fund the program. Perhaps they didn’t, because they thought that it had succeeded as promised. Or perhaps they realized it had failed and couldn’t possibly work, so they refused to throw good money after bad. Or perhaps, they had other concerns in 1963.

      Sub-Saharan Africa was never part of the DDT malaria control program, because it was decided to be too difficult.

    2. DDT has not been banned for anti-malarial uses. It was banned for use in agriculture, but its use against mosquitoes declined because the mosquitoes evolved resistance. So blaming Rachel Carson for deaths due to malaria is just more right-wing dishonesty.

      1. Yes, that comment by corrio37 is much like the dishonest backlash that Carson herself faced, at the hands of chemical-industry apologists.

        DDT is still easily obtainable in tropical countries such as the one I live in.

        Wikipedia says this:

        “The Stockholm Convention, which took effect in 2004, outlawed several persistent organic pollutants, and restricted DDT use to vector control…Malaria Foundation International states, “The outcome of the treaty is arguably better than the status quo going into the negotiations…For the first time, there is now an insecticide which is restricted to vector control only, meaning that the selection of resistant mosquitoes will be slower than before”…Resistance is largely due to agricultural use, in much greater quantities than required for disease prevention. According to one study that attempted to quantify the lives saved by banning agricultural use and thereby slowing the spread of resistance, “it can be estimated that at current rates each kilo of insecticide added to the environment will generate 105 new cases of malaria.”

    1. That is odd.

      It’s one of the few books I reread every decade or so. It holds up pretty well.

      You can call it science fiction but it is also great literature.

      1. (Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, On the Beach, Canticle for Leibowitz etc),..

        LOL. I read all of these too.

        Day of the Triffids was great. I’d love to see one or two. No more though.

  16. She was so far ahead of her time that NOBODY appreciated her! Now, I wish we could just thank her for her wisdom and see if she has any ideas at ALL to help us out of this MESS we’ve created!

    1. When Rachel Carson’s book was published (1962) it encountered not only criticism and rejection. There were many positive responses too. Many women’s organizations, for example, but also many biologists, ecologists and agronomists, were very supportive. Don’t forget that her book is based on the published work of many scientists, whose alarming publications did not reach the general public. Rachel Carson, however, succeeded in reaching a wide audience. Of crucial importance was the fact that she was a very talented author, and that she was known as such by her previous books. She deserves (I think) a place in English literature.

  17. I read the German pocketbook edition as soon as it was available at the local library (1968 or 69, I think).
    It was one of those books the librarians tried not to give to me, but popular scientific books and science textbooks had no age limitations, and the sentence “You are too young for this” did not deter me.
    I was aware that Rachel Carson was no longer alive, and I remember to think “What a pity I cannot ask her how to cope with capitalist propaganda and religious preaching against being a woman scientist, and writing books!”
    Seems I did not learn it by myself, I still get furious when simple (to me ideas like the food chain are plain) facts are denied and/or twisted!!!

  18. Some time in 1964 or 65, there was a massive release of Aldrin into the Mississippi River. A company in Tennessee had been storing substandard batches in plugged storm drain. The drain plug broke in a heavy rain and all the stored Aldrin went in to the Mississippi River.

    Previous to that time, I had simply let New Orleans tap water stand for a day to outgas chlorine. After the spill dechlorinated New Orleans tap water would kill a small fish in under five minutes. Fortunately I discovered this befor I destroyed my dissertation work by changing water in my experimental aquaria. The tap water remained fish lethal for about six weeks, and, of course, we all continued drinking it. There were massive fish kills in the Mississippi and out into the Gulf.

    As a result there was responsible legislation and regulation to prevent another incident. It is my impression that this incident was a major factor in getting people to pay attention to Silent Spring.

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