This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for September 27, 2017: Flamingo Watching

September 27, 2017: published: Silent Spring

Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring was published on this date in 1962 (books by this author). Carson was a marine biologist, but she was also a crafter of lyrical prose who contributed to magazines like The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, and who had already published three popular lyrical books about the sea. One of these — The Sea Around Us (1951) — had won the National Book Award. In the course of her work, Carson became aware of the ways that chemical pesticides were harming plants and wildlife. She felt it was important to make the public aware of this, but she was not an investigative journalist and didn’t feel confident enough to write what she called the “poison book.” She began trying to interest magazines in the subject as early as 1945. In 1958, Carson’s friend mentioned that she was finding a lot of dead birds in her Massachusetts bird sanctuary. Carson, in turn, wrote to E.B. White, who was an editor at The New Yorker. She suggested that White write an article about pesticides. He said the magazine would be keen to publish such an article, but he encouraged her to write it herself. The article became a multiyear project that Carson pursued through personal tragedies like the death of her mother, and her own diagnosis with breast cancer in 1960.

By 1962, many scientists had published work that questioned whether the widespread and indiscriminate use of pesticides like DDT was safe. Carson gathered these reports in one place, and then used her literary talents to bring the issue to vivid life. The New Yorker serialized Silent Spring in the summer of 1962, and it was published in book form in September. The title comes from one of the book’s chapters, in which Carson paints a picture of a future spring morning without birdsong. “No witchcraft,” Carson writes, “no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”

The book was a huge best-seller, and although she was dreadfully ill from her cancer treatments, Carson appeared on many television shows to defend her research. Eric Sevareid, who interviewed Carson for CBS Reports, later said he was afraid she wouldn’t live long enough to see the broadcast of their interview. In June 1963, she appeared before a Senate subcommittee and gave policy recommendations that she had worked on for five years. She didn’t advocate a ban on all pesticides, but recommended that they be used more judiciously. Aerial spraying was the worst culprit, because it could end up on people’s private land without their knowledge or consent. “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem,” Carson said.

Chemical companies, backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were not fans of the book. They tried to sue Carson, her publisher, and The New Yorker. They spent $250,000 on a smear campaign, calling her a “hysterical woman” and a communist, and casting doubt on her scientific bona fides. A former secretary of agriculture wondered publicly why a spinster with no children cared so much about genetics. But all the scandal only helped the book become a household name. President Kennedy read it with interest, and instructed his science advisors to look into Carson’s allegations against DDT. They determined that her claims held up, but it was still 10 years before the widespread use of DDT was banned in the United States. Carson still has her detractors today who say that the banning of DDT killed more people — due to malaria-carrying mosquitos — than Hitler.

Carson died of breast cancer in April 1964. She lived to see the book’s commercial success. She didn’t live to see the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, or the Environmental Protection Agency — all of which came about due, in large part, to Silent Spring.