Breaking the Silence AWI looks back on Rachel Carson’s unprecedented environmental revolution

There are all kinds of revolutions—political, cultural, historic and economic—but the most effective ones are unexpected. In 1962, this was proven by the earth-shattering uprising brought about by a woman working in quasi-anonymity for the US government. Rachel Carson that year published Silent Spring, a lodestar of intelligent analysis of the destruction of our environment that had been engendered by "omniscient" scientists.

In her book, Ms. Carson skillfully presented the effects of pesticides on animals and the environment, accusing industry and the government of spreading misinformation. She revealed that the chemical DDT was causing birds to have reproductive problems and lay eggs with thinner shells. Today, because of her influence, we are aware of the perils that chemicals pose to the environment. Sometimes promptly and sometimes slowly, we have made strides in mitigating the horrendous toll humanity has paid for years of indiscriminate poisoning.

I still remember a time when DDT was as ubiquitous as toothpaste—and as zealously employed. I go back to a time in our history when the loss of birds, other wildlife and good health was an accepted way of life. Academia and science can be as unseeing as any of us until they are brought up short by a determined researcher with a message. One woman, unknown and unheralded and unappreciated, turned around the environment surrounding millions of our fellows and brought some equilibrium to the man vs. nature debate. Not a research team, not a committee, not a think tank—onewoman.

Looking back on the trajectory of this beacon of common sense, one can only marvel at how we were so willfully blind to the irrefutable proof that Ms. Carson put forth. That the reaction to Silent Spring was mixed is to put it as mildly as possible. TIME magazine branded it "nonsense," while Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hailed it as "the most important chronicle of this century for the human race." My favorite comment is from her editor, Paul Brooks: "… Rachel Carson somehow succeeded in making a book about death a celebration of life."

Tributes poured in. Sir Julian Huxley—yes, that Huxley—saluted her work. He described it to his brother Aldous, who said, "We are destroying half the basis of English poetry." Upon Ms. Carson’s death on April 16, 1964, the Boston Globe ran an editorial simply headlined, "The Power of a Woman." Nearly three decades later, The Christian Science Monitor quoted her in an article about the use of pesticides on vegetable crops, noting that we were living in "an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make money at whatever cost to others is seldom challenged." We must remember Ms. Carson’s message in our own era of global warming and other threats to animals and the environment.

Marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson joined the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) Advisory Board in 1960. Two years later, she published the book Silent Spring, effectively launching the modern environmentalism movement. Ms. Carson was awarded AWI’s 1962 Albert Schweitzer Medal for her contribution to the protection of animals from dangerous pesticides such as DDT. Sadly, she died of cancer at a young age in 1964. To commemorate the 100 years since her birth in 1907, we celebrate her legend.