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Rachel Carson Inspired Americans to Speak out about Pollution

Rachel Carson stares off-camera. She does not smile.

Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964). Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her most popular book, Silent Spring. The book warned about the use of man-made pesticides, especially DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). DDT was a popular pesticide mass manufactured during World War II. Carson wrote that if humans continued to use these pesticides without limitations, the chemicals would damage the environment. DDT weakened birds' eggshells. If the government didn't set laws to protect the environment, humans would soon experience a "silent spring," without bird noises.

Green book cover with the text "Silent Spring Rachel Carson." In the upper left hand corner of the book there's a yellow line drawing of a plant bending over in the water.
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, 1962. National Museum of American History.

Carson had wanted to be a writer when she grew up, but a favorite science professor convinced her to study biology. She worked at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for 15 years as a government biologist. "In the early part of the 20th century it was unusual and difficult for a young woman to pursue a career in the predominantly male field of science," explains Patricia Mansfield, former Associate Curator in the Division of Political History at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

White stamp with green ink art of Rachel Carson. She looks directly at the viewer.
Rachel Carson stamp. National Postal Museum. © United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.

Silent Spring was, without a doubt, Carson's most controversial of the four books she wrote during her lifetime. Makers and users of pesticides like DDT spoke out against Carson's research. But the Presidential Science Advisory Committee conducted a study in 1963 that supported her findings. Carson's book was also read by many everyday Americans and became a best seller. The book inspired Americans to consider their responsibility for protecting the environment. Carson said, "I wrote the book [Silent Spring] because I think there is a great danger that the next generation will have no chance to know nature as we do—if we don't preserve it the damage will be irreversible."

Rachel Louise Carson
"Rachel Louise Carson" by Una Hanbury. National Portrait Gallery.

Carson died of breast cancer only 18 months after Silent Spring's publication. Six years after her death, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established to protect human health and the environment. The government passed laws and regulations to limit, and sometimes ban, the chemicals she warned about.

Here are just a few women in conservation who you might like to learn more about:

  • Kimberly Komatsu is an Ecosystem Conservation Ecologist at our Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Her team studies which plants, animals, and other factors affect ecosystems.
  • Artist Maya Lin used 54,000 marbles to model the Chesapeake Bay at our Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery, encouraging viewers to consider conservation needs. She said she was inspired, in part, by Rachel Carson.
  • Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey studied birds and spoke out in favor of laws that protected wildlife.
  • Julie Packard, is founding executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She led the aquarium to engage the public in environmental science and conservation.
  • Lisa Stevens worked as a senior curator of mammals at our Smithsonian National Zoo for more than 30 years, specializing in giant pandas. Though she was known as "The Panda Lady" to the public, she worked with more than 30 species at the Smithsonian!
  • Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas encouraged the public to protect the Florida Everglades.
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