The Legacy Of "Silent Spring"

Rachel Carson, author, "Silent Spring"
Holding her controversial book "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson stands in her library in Silver Springs, Md. on March 14, 1963. She says she "wanted to bring to public attention" her charges that pestacides are destroying wildlife and endangering the environment. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

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.