Rachel Carson: Biography, Facts & Books

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

This article discusses the life and work of Rachel Carson, a leading pioneer of environmental research and conservation. Read the article, then take the quiz!

A Girl Apart

Being different has created some of the world's greatest thinkers: Al Gore, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter, to name a few. These men were all influenced by the work of Rachel Carson, a pioneer in the field of environmental and marine research. It was through her most famous work, Silent Spring, that Carson developed her most lasting impact. She introduced countless people to the potential dangers of pesticides and devoted her life to writing about the world surrounding us.

The Life and Times of Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 on a farm in Pennsylvania, where she grew up loving animals and being outdoors. She wrote stories constantly, even being published at the age of 10 in a magazine for children. As much as she loved the outside, she wanted to become a writer. After graduating at the top of her class for high school, Carson went on to college, initially studying English. It was after she took a required biology class that her interest in the biological sciences was awakened. She switched her major to biology, and graduated magna cum laude in 1929. Carson went on to Johns Hopkins University to receive a master's degree in zoology and genetics. She studied the sea as a research assistant at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and furthered her interest in marine life.

After earning her master's degree in 1932, Carson planned to study for a PhD, but needed to help out her family financially, and she looked for a teaching position. Here academic goals were again delayed when her father died in 1935, and her mother needed help at home. To make money for her family, she took a position with the US Department of Fisheries writing copy for a radio program that was supposed to drum up interest in the department and their forays into aquatic life. Carson did just that, making the subject matter interesting enough for the program to be successful. After taking the civil service exam, Carson was the second woman hired full time by the Department of Fisheries. She took the articles she wrote for work and began sending them to magazines and newspapers. Carson took a particular interest in the Chesapeake Bay, describing marine life found there.

Rachel Carson and Bob Hines Perform Research in the Atlantic Ocean in 1952
Rachel Carson and Bob Hines Research in the Atlantic

Carson primarily wrote information for the public, and was lauded for the way she presented information. This led to interest in a book deal for her, and in 1941, Carson published Under the Sea Wind. The book was critically lauded, but had dismal sales. Carson was introduced in 1945 to the subject that would become part of her legacy. DDT had been developed as a pesticide, and Carson learned about while still at her government job. She was under pressure at home as well. Besides now caring for her mother, she also cared for her sister's daughters after her death. Carson wanted to transition to writing full time, but was the primary breadwinner. She became the chief editor of publications for the new Fish and Wildlife Services by 1949, but still felt the call to write as a permanent vocation.

Having developed more research, Carson published the second of her books on the sea, The Sea Around Us, in 1951, to great acclaim and financial success. The New Yorker published several chapters from the book, and she was awarded the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Carson's first book was also re-released, to capitalize on the popularity of the second. The proceeds from the second book allowed Carson to write full time in 1952. In 1955, her third book, The Edge of the Sea, was published, focusing on ecosystems mainly on the East Coast. It was not as widely received as the second book, but was still profitable for Carson.

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