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Rachel Carson

A Women Worth Knowing, Part 2

Rachel Carson, among the earliest female scientist, discovered she was designed to take scientific material and translate it into understandable writing that peaked the interest of the non-scientific mind.  Her early life is reviewed in A Women Worth Knowing, Part 1.  In 1937, Undersea, an article Carson wrote for Atlantic Monthly, drew lots of attention.  The editor wrote to her, “The findings of science you have illuminated in such a way as to fire the imagination of the layman.”

On the heels of this article, a publisher commissioned  Carson to write a book, Under the Sea -Wind.  It created quit a buzz. Scientific experts and literary critics loved it.  Weeks after publication, Japanese fighter planes bombed Pearl Harbor.  The nations’s attention turned to war.  All book sales slowed dramatically.  An excellent piece of science and literature lay unread — a true disappointment to Rachel.  A decade later in the summer of 1951, The Sea Around Us hit the bookstores.  The result: New York Times bestseller list for eighty-six weeks, thirty-two weeks at number one.  

After The Sea Around Us, a steady income from book royalties enabled Carson to resign from her job and start a new project.  Her responsibilities as chief caretaker and provider for her extended families never waned.  Only now, she navigates her own health issues.  Her new book released at the end of 1955, The Edge of the Sea, landed on the New York Times bestseller list for a season and brought her a couple of awards.  Despite the fame, Rachel’s household (consisted of her ailing mother, her niece, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s young son, Roger) took center stage.  Marjorie was hospitalized in January 1957 and died a few days later.  Rachel was now the guardian of a preschooler.  

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The rumbling of controversies surrounding synthetic pesticides broke out across the nation and Rachel decided to focus her research in this direction.  By mid-1958, her mother and life-long encourager passed away.  Alone but propelled by the sense that her research on pesticide was to be her most important work, she concentrated on a connection between human exposure to pesticides and cancer incidences.  With the help of two assistants and a network of professionals, her research was gaining momentum. In Spring 1960, Carson wrestled with a number of serious medical conditions, chief among them — metastasizing cancer.  Radiation brought with it rheumatoid arthritis and temporary blindness.  She kept her health issues private, fearing her critics might question the objectivity of her work.

After extensive research, Carson knew that acute contact with DDT and other similar compounds caused potential fatal damage to major organs.  Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962, sounded the alarm.  Just before publication, Carson’s doctor uncovered that her cancer had spread.  The next round of radiation beat her up so much that she kept her public appearances to a minimum.  As her book and research broke, American’s were outraged to learn the dangers to which they’d been exposed.  Her work forced the government to do their own research.  Public outcry pushed for reform.  Carson was called to testify before Congressional committees.  April 14, 1963 she died at the age of 56 leaving the earth a better place.  

For the last decade of her life, Carson worked without the backing of an institution.  Even though she was reserved and soft-spoken, Carson intentionally spoke out on a huge controversial issue.  As she gave voice to her cause, she did more than identify critical problems and potential solutions, she pointed us to a path of awareness and action cautioning that we go with humility and wisdom.  

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.
— Mother Teresa

A Women Worth Knowing, Part 1

In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to remind us all of Rachel Carson, born in 1907 to a traveling salesman and a piano teacher, grew up on a small farm that nurtured her special admiration for nature.  Her mother, a former school teacher, introduced her to great literature, as well as a love for the outdoors.  Rachel was the only one in her family to graduate from high school.  Her enrollment in a four year college brought additional financial hardship to an already strapped household.  China was sold.  Acreage was liquidated.  More piano students were recruited.  Four years later, with a degree in Biology and a flare for writing, Rachel was admitted to a PhD program on full scholarship.  

As her families financial situation worsened and her father’s health deteriorated, Rachel moved her family in with her — her aging parents, her two adult siblings and her sister’s two daughters.  At the beginning of the Great Depression, her brother and sister struggled to find employment, leaving Rachel as the primary provider.  She cut her course work in half and took a job as a lab assistant.  

In 1932, at the age of 25, Rachel was awarded her Master’s degree in zoology at a time when women were not represented among scientist.  As she moved toward her doctorate, she continued to financially support her extended household.  About the time Rachel’s sister was diagnosed with diabetes, Rachel’s brother decided to move out taking his small but meaningful income with him.  Rachel withdrew from school to find a full time job.  Months and months of searching turned up nothing.  

Rachel Carson's 1928 Yearbook Portrait - Pennsylvania College for Women

Rachel Carson's 1928 Yearbook Portrait - Pennsylvania College for Women

A year and a half after her sister’s diagnosis, her father died of an heart attack.  She still did not have full time employment. Two days a week she wrote a script for a government educational radio program about the sea.  The success of the program prompted her to try the same thing for the general public —translating scientific material into comprehensible and interesting material for the nonscientific reader.  She was published in magazines and newspapers which brought her many accolades. This, as it would later be revealed, was what Rachel was designed for — translating scientific material to the general public. In June 1936, she was the second women to be hired by the Bureau of Fisheries as a full time scientist.  

This is only the beginning of Rachel’s story but we can already so many moments when she must have felt overwhelmed, frustrated, disappointed. She never resigned herself to settle for what her emotions were dictating.  She continued to press forward and when she did, she stumbled upon a way in which she would forever change the world.  (Keep watching the blog for more of her story.)  

Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.
— Ann Patchett