Rachel Carson, condensed version: Biography marks her centennial

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Today marks the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, the Springdale native who wrote "Silent Spring."

To mark the occasion is this engaging, compact and handsomely printed biography subtitled "Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and the Rise of the Environmental Movement."

Slightly larger than a paperback book, it's the latest volume in Oxford's series, "New Narratives in American History."

Mark H. Lytle writes one of the names Carson had considered for her "poison book" was "Man Against the Earth." Her agent lobbied for the less melodramatic, but much more poignant "Silent Spring." It was an inspired choice, capturing in two words one of the great environmental dangers resulting from indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Carson reported that songbirds faced reproductive problems and premature death as deadly chemicals, especially DDT, collected in their bodies.

Similarly, the book is aptly titled for a literary biography of a quiet woman who helped to launch the modern environmental movement. Carson challenged not only the chemical industry in "Silent Spring" but the larger notion that humans could master nature and not run afoul of the law of unintended consequences.

Lytle divides Carson's life into four seasons, each corresponding to one of her major works. He adds a prologue, an epilogue and an afterword to round out her story.

She was born in a farmhouse about 15 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and had shown early promise as a writer, submitting stories to St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, at 11.

Carson developed her scientific skills at Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University. Inspired by a biology teacher named Mary Scott Skinker, Carson excelled as a science student, moving on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

There, she learned that she lacked the temperament for traditional research, but faced the need to support her family. With a master's degree in zoology, she went to work for what became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While Carson had an early start on her writing career, financial success was long in coming. Her first book, "Under the Sea Wind," brought her $700 in royalties. It was 10 years later in 1951 when "The Sea Around Us" was published. A best seller, the book won the National Book Award. At 44, Carson was financially secure.

Carson had spent much of her government career editing papers and reports for other scientists. That work was good preparation for "Silent Spring" where her challenge was to write about complex research and technical material simply, clearly and accurately.

During the multi-year period of its composition, she suffered from several serious maladies, including cancer.

"Silent Spring" was a commercial and critical success when it was published in 1962. Few writers have had such a direct effect on public policy.

In his epilogue, Lytle links Carson's book to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the eventual banning of DDT.

Sadly, Carson was able to savor her success only briefly. She died in April 1964, shortly before her 57th birthday.

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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