Historic Highlight: Rachel Carson
Hi there! For those of you that do not know me, my name is Rachel Burlington and I live in Portland, Oregon. Before I moved here last June for a new job, I worked with Cat in the Delaware Valley to start this Women in Horticulture group. What had started out as one meetup at bar, exploded into a vibrant, thriving professional network of hard-working, passionate women. Each new woman that I met had a unique story, yet each had universal themes woven into them. Hearing these stories allows us to learn how to effectively use our resources so that we can help each other out. None of us got us here on our own. It is because of thousands of pioneering women before us that brought about incremental changes over hundreds of years. Whether you realize it or not, what we are working for is to accomplish little changes for the next generation of women in our field. I will be honoring historic women by highlighting their stories.
Even though she isn’t necessarily a woman from the plant sciences, I want to share Rachel Carson’s story because it is so intertwined with mine. Rachel Carson helped me get to where I am today! As a kid, my first reaction to being a scientist was, “that’s so boring. Who would ever want to be a scientist?” Looking back now, I realize that was my reaction because the word “scientist” sparked images of older men in lab coats droning on in a monotone. None of it was relatable. It wasn’t until I learned about Rachel Carson and her work that science became less intimidating. Virtually every earth science/biology text book I picked up had a colorful quote about nature from Rachel Carson. I have always assumed she was just a poet until I decided to research her for myself. After learning her story, she instantly became my role model for what a woman can achieve professionally and personally.
Carson is best known for writing the book Silent Spring, which is a literary classic that alarmed the public about how we were mistreating the environment particularly through our use of pesticides and fertilizers. This book sparked the environmental movement that we are still pushing today. However, her first love wasn’t necessarily science. At a young age, she quickly developed a talent and love for writing which eventually got her published in the children’s magazine, St. Nicholas. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Louisa May Alcott also were also featured in this publication (2).
She began her formal education at Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatnam college) with the intention to study her first love, writing. However she switched to biology for her undergraduate work and studied Zoology at graduate school at John Hopkin’s University.
After graduating from John Hopkin’s, she started her career at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries where she was tasked with educational outreach through a series of radio programs called Romance Under the Water. She eventually got promoted to junior aquatic biologist. (1)
However, upon her sister’s death in 1937, she became responsible for her sister’s two children, Marian and Marjorie, as well as caregiver for her aging mother, Maria. Rachel who was used to a calm, predictable household had her world turned upside down by now being the breadwinner for a household of four. Financial strains motivated Carson to supplement her income by submitting articles to various publications including Atlantic Monthly and The Baltimore Sun. Her love for nature, especially the sea, provided ample content for these articles. This is part of Carson’s story that doesn’t always get told. The added stress of solely supporting a household both financially and mentally gave her less flexibility in pursuing research. She worked best in quiet environments and her new situation compromised her access to that. Her struggle to juggle career and household is a relatable issue among many professional women today.
Carson’s gift of literary prowess soon secured her a glowing reputation in the literary community which soon evolved into ardent book offers (2). She did what most people could not do: explain complicated, technical information in an entertaining way. Descriptions of the sea and its ecosystems became more of adventure than an obligatory section of a science class. In a speech at Drexel University in Philadelphia, she said,
“Scientists are often accused of writing only for other scientists. They are even charged with opposing any attempt to interpret their findings in language the layman can understand. Literature is merely the expression of truth. And scientific truth has power to improve our world only if it is expressed” (3).
Perhaps this is what made her so significant. When she published Silent Spring in 1962, it was well received because of her literary celebrity status and dedicated following. Nevertheless, Carson’s book created waves of discussion around how we are treating our earth.
There is just so much more I can say about my hero Rachel Carson. Her intrepid spirit motivated her to fight for necessary environmental regulations even during her final, feeble days before succumbing to cancer. She taught me to be brave, to love and care for our precious earth, and that science can be practiced by anyone. Thank you, Rachel Carson, for making me the professional I am today.
1. Rachel Carson Biography. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. fws.gov/refuge/Rachel_Carson/about/rachelcarson.html
2. Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 1997.
3. Rachel L. Carson, Remarks at Commencement Luncheon, June 14, 1952, Drexel Institute of Technology, Philadelphia, PA, RCP/BLYU