The world's debt of gratitude to a scientist
Growing up in a home with parents deeply interested in science, the arts and the outdoors ingrained in me a love and inquisitiveness for all things scientific and the natural world.
I distinctly remember sitting in my third grade classroom when I learned why our national symbol, the bald eagle, was on the endangered species list. Due to pesticides, their eggshells were too thin. I remember thinking, “Why would that matter? What do thin eggshells have to do with fewer bald eagles?” It was not until a few years later that I figured out that thin eggshells meant that when the birds lay on their nests, the eggs would break.
I was 13 when I first read the famous book "Silent Spring," by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and nature writer. I immediately fell in love with this book. Published in 1962, "Silent Spring" is nearing its 60th anniversary. Carson was the first to proclaim that use of the common pesticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) would be better termed as a “biocide” for its ability to kill everything with which it comes in contact, and a cause for cancer.
According to WomensHistory.org, “After outscoring all other applicants on the civil service exam, in 1936 Carson became the second woman hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries. She remained there for 15 years, writing brochures and other materials for the public. She was promoted to Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.” During this time, Carson wrote "Under the Sea Wind" (1941) and "The Sea Around Us" (1951). The latter sold well worldwide. She won a National Book Award, a national science writing-prize and a Guggenheim grant, which, with the book’s sales, enabled her to move to Southport Island, Maine in 1953 to concentrate on research and writing. In 1955, she published "The Edge of the Sea," another popular seller.
“A letter from a friend in Massachusetts about the loss of bird life after pesticide spraying inspired Carson to write 'Silent Spring.'” Chemical companies sought to discredit her as a communist or hysterical woman. Many pulled their ads from the "CBS Reports" TV special on April 3, 1963, entitled “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” Still, roughly 15 million viewers tuned in. President John Kennedy convened a Science Advisory Committee report, which validated Carson’s research and made pesticides a major public issue. "Silent Spring" led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides and sparked the movement that ultimately led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Carson received medals from the National Audubon Society and the American Geographical Society, as well as induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Various other groups have celebrated Carson's life and work since her death. Most significantly, on June 9, 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Carson posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Carson died of breast cancer a short two years after "Silent Spring" was published.
Today, with DDT banned and with the hard work of conservation agencies throughout the country the bald eagle is off the endangered species list. This majestic bird can be seen flying in skies all over the country, thanks in part to Rachel Carson.
Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City. Reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.