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The Legacy Of "Silent Spring"

In her groundbreaking book "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson jolted a prosperous post-war America — a country confident that science and technology were leading the way to a future in which disease and hunger could be overcome, in no small part thanks to a new generation of powerful pesticides.

But in "Silent Spring," Carson warned that progress had a price.

"These sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes — non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the good and the bad, to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in soil," she said in a 1962 documentary for CBS News. "All this, though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects."

At the midpoint of the 20th century, spraying was a familiar sight to many young baby boomers including Robert Kennedy, son of the late New York senator, Robert Kennedy.

"We had sprayers coming — coming down our street, big fogging trucks, you know … to spray for DDT," he told CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras. "And my brothers and I would go out and play combat in the fog, you know, running in and out of this fog, breathing this stuff."

Kennedy is now an environmental lawyer, and says Rachel Carson was a pioneer who inspired a generation of activists.

"She was the first one to quietly, you know, kind of nudge the American people and say, 'Well, wait a second. There's a cost here that you're not being told about,'" he said.

Carson, an unassuming scientist and writer, was an unlikely activist for sure, but the seeds were planted early in her childhood. She grew up in a modest house just outside of Pittsburgh.

"She enjoyed wandering around in the fields," said Patricia DeMarco, the executive director of the Rachel Carson Homestead. "It was her playground. She just was very fascinated with living things and growing things. From an early age she wanted to be a writer and her mother was teaching her at home a lot."

After earning a college science degree, Carson took a job at the Federal Bureau of Fisheries, which later became the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"While she was put out in the field as an aquatic biologist, soon she was editing other scientists' reports," said Linda Lear, author of a biography on Carson who also contributed to a new book of essays about her legacy.

In her free time, Carson wrote three increasingly successful books about the mysteries of the sea. The books sold so well that she turned to writing full-time. She hoped that her writing would help educate the public about the wonders of nature.

"Always to instill her science writing with an ethic, if you will, of how beautiful nature is," Lear said, "how intricate it is and how everything in nature is related to everything else.

So when Carson saw evidence that pesticides — DDT in particular — were killing birds and other wildlife, she decided that would be the subject of her next book.

It took her four years to write "Silent Spring," based on research from a network of scientists around the country. Finishing the book became a matter of will; she was fighting breast cancer.

Roger Christie, Carson's great-nephew, said he could tell how ill she was and perhaps at some level he knew she was dying. Carson adopted him when he was five and she was just shy of 50.

"I think subconsciously, I knew she was dying," he said.

Through sheer determination, Carson participated in an hour-long CBS News documentary on pesticides, which aired not long after "Silent Spring" became a national best seller.

"Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the Earth without making it unfit for all life?" she said in the documentary.

While Carson didn't contend that chemical insecticides must never be used, she faced harsh opposition.

"Well, the one guy, the chief critic was — as they say, he would have made a great villain in a Bela Lugosi movie," Christie said.

His name was Dr. Robert White-Stevens, a spokesman for the chemical industry.

"The major claims in Miss Rachel Carson's book, 'Silent Spring,' are gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence, and general practical experience in the field," he told CBS more than four decades ago. "If Man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth."

"He was way over the top," Christie said. "'If Miss Carson has her way, the — hundreds of thousands of people would be starving in the streets tomorrow!'"

When CBS turned to government experts, the questions were many, but the answers few. Dr. Page Nicholson, water pollution expert, Public Health Service, wasn't able to answer how long pesticides persist in water once they enter or the extent to which pesticides contaminated groundwater supplies.

Even still, Christie said he knew his aunt was having an impact when President John F. Kennedy mentioned the book at a press conference.

"And my Uncle Jack, John F. Kennedy, read her book, and said, 'I'm gonna appoint an independent commission to investigate whether it's true or not," Robert Kennedy said. "That commission met for almost a year. And then at the end of that time period, [they] came out and said that essentially everything in Rachel Carson's book was true."

Rachel Carson died in 1964, just 18 months after "Silent Spring" was published. She would never know that her crusade against pesticides forever changed the way Americans view their environment.

DDT was banned in this country in 1972. Carson's work also led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and without her pioneering efforts, we might not be marking Earth Day.

"Silent Spring" foreshadowed the debate over global warming, clean energy and organic food.

But to best understand Carson's legacy, there's no better place to look than Catalina Island, just off the coast of southern California — home again to the bald eagle.

The eagles had all but disappeared after DDT was dumped into local waters, which led egg shells to become so thin that chicks couldn't survive. But just this month, for the first time in decades, eggs left in nests in the wild hatched on their own.

Ann Muscat, president of the Catalina Island conservancy, believes the eagles owe it all to Rachel Carson.

"So I think that wherever she is right now, she must be looking down on Catalina and thinking, 'This is really a wonderful occasion,'" Muscat said.

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