This story was originally published on September 16, 2022.
It’s the 60th anniversary of the publication of a book that sounded the alarm about society’s indiscriminate use of chemicals and made the science accessible to regular readers. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962, though parts of it had run in the New Yorker magazine in the months before.
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“She was the first, really, in a popular way to bring forward the fact that synthetic chemistry is not the marvel that the chemical industry had projected it to be,” said Jack Doyle, a mostly retired research analyst and author who writes about contemporary history and pop culture at his site, The Pop History Dig. He’s written about Carson’s classic book and its legacy.
“Silent Spring was originally released at a time when chemistry was just the top shelf in the economy,” Doyle said. “I mean, you had major companies —DuPont, Dow and others — making huge profits on these new substances.”
But he said, it was also a time when science was trusted to create these “wonder products,” and there was no government agency to challenge their use and safety.
“It was — use first, ask questions later,” Doyle said. “And the genie was out of the bottle. We’re still playing catch-up today.”
But Carson did challenge the use of these new chemicals and pesticides — particularly DDT, an insecticide first used in the 1940s. Doyle said she wasn’t a radical in the sense that she stormed the barricades. She used her scientific training and thoughtful, methodical research to make her case. She amassed a library of the effects of DDT from around the world, and it formed the backbone of the book.
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At the time, DDT was sprayed in a fog over crops, among other applications. Carson wrote about how the chemical didn’t just kill the insects it targeted. In her example, DDT was sprayed on elm trees to protect them from a beetle. But the chemical remained on the leaves. When the leaves fell from the trees, earthworms ate them. Those earthworms were eaten by robins who mysteriously could not reproduce. Other robins died, leading to a “silent spring.”
“She showed how minute amounts of chemicals were being bio-magnified in the system,” Doyle said. “And in the process, she brought forward the whole notion of ecology, the ecological system.
Her work helped galvanize the modern environmental movement. But, Doyle said, there was a cost. The chemical industry pushed back swiftly.
“They started marshaling their advertising machines and the public relations folks. They came at Carson pretty harshly,” Doyle said. “She was called everything from a nature nut to a communist.”
But Doyle said she withstood it and was vindicated. The Kennedy White House formed a scientific advisory panel to look into pesticides. Its report a year later showed her work was sound.
Carson wasn’t the first to write about the potential harms of DDT to people or the environment, Doyle says, but she was a talented writer, who could capture the public’s imagination and emotions. According to his site, Silent Spring sold over 100,000 copies in the first three months.
“DDT itself was phased beginning in 1972. So she had an enormous impact,” Doyle said. “Her book was a profound piece of work.”
For Doyle, it’s still relevant today.
“We have an onslaught of 80,000 chemicals in commerce, and 2,000 are invented every year. The worry is that we’re nowhere close to having good toxicological profiles of what those chemicals do.”
Jack Doyle writes The Pop History Dig website, where you can find his story about Rachel Cason and many other environmental and historical figures and events. He wrote an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this spring entitled, “Sixty years ago, Pittsburgh’s Rachel Carson was more right than she knew.”