Rachel Carson

By Ashley Detloff


The biologist, writer, and ecologist, Rachel Carson, was born on May 17th, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania.  She started her career as an ecologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, which is where she first encountered the pesticide DDT.  The product was marketed as a “bug bomb” after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Appalled at obvious dangers that DDT posed, Carson tried to publish an article about the dangers of DDT, but no newspaper or magazine would touch it.  The information Carson had uncovered about DDT (that it was responsible for a massive bird kill-off near Cape Cod) was swept under the rug.  DDT was lauded as a miracle cure for farmers and pest control workers everywhere.  When the book was finally published in 1961, it was met with mixed reviews.  While her book did help facilitate the ban on DDT in 1973, many people believe that DDT is necessary to protect people, especially in third world countries, from malaria. (See “The DDT Controversy”) Nevertheless, Carson’s courageous effort to shed light on such a controversial issue helped to save many of the bird species in the United States (most notably, the Bald Eagle) and helped spark the modern environmentalist movement.

Issues about DDT

The formula for DDT (and other insecticides) was adopted by the United States Military and was used predominantly in Vietnam and Korea as a deforesting agent to protect the military from the threat of malaria.  (For more information go here: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/docs/1996/104-12/focusvietnam.html)

People and animals who have been in contact with DDT have been known to show these symptoms/problems:

  • Risk of premature birth or a low birth weight for babies born to DDT infected women
  • DDT affects the liver, nervous system, kidneys, and immune system in animals
  • DDT causes reproductive problems on small mammals (eg. Rodents) and some become sterile
  • DDT has been shown to store in human fat cells indefinitely.  There has not been enough evidence to determine if DDT is carcinogenic
  • DDT has a high potential to bioaccumulation in the ecosystem, thus making certain game animals (especially fish) unsafe to eat
  • Birds that have encountered DDT through direct contact or bioaccumulation have reproductive problems.  The egg shells in many birds become too thin and then break, causing the embryo to die.
  • DDT is an endocrine suppressor thus also affecting the reproductive system
  • DDT is easily transported via water and air current to places where they have never been used.

–          http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Actives/ddt.htm

–          http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/NewScience/oncompounds/ddt/2003/2003-0808chenandrogan.htm

The DDT Controversy (http://www.aaenvironment.com/DDT.htm)

The African American Environmentalist Association (AAEA) believes that DDT should be used in African (and other third world countries) to eliminate malaria.  They say:

AAEA did not come to this position lightly. We recognize that the misuse of pesticides threatens not only bird communities but human communities too. It is for this reason that we do not support gigantic broadcast spraying programs. We also accept the science of bioconcentration of pesticides in birds high on food chains, such as eagles, pelicans and falcons. However, we believe that the benefits derived from eliminating malaria through the use of DDT far outweigh any dangers. We will leave readers with one question to answer in this regard: Would you exchange the life of one child for all the eagles in a country? (Your child?)

Besides the fact that their website is full of spelling errors, many people share in AAEA’s belief.  If you google, “DDT + lifting the ban” and “DDT + criticism” you will find information on both sides of the argument

Discussion Topics

  • After reading the first three chapters of Silent Spring on D2L, what were your thoughts on the topic?
  • What central themes that we have already mentioned in class reappear in Carson’s book?
  • Can you propose a better solution to protect people from contracting malaria, than spraying DDT?
  • (Going off of the quote from “The Other Road”) What must we as a society (or even as a person) do to get off the superhighway and venture out onto roads less traveled?



“The more clearly we focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction” – Rachel Carson

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem” (“The Obligation to Endure,” 12-13).

“Incidents like the eastern Illinois spraying raise a question that is not only scientific but moral.  The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized” (“Needless Havoc,” 99).

“We stand now where two roads diverge.  But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair.  The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at the end lies disaster.  The other fork of the road – the one “less traveled by” – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth” (“The Other Road,” 271).


Happy folks, enjoying a shower of DDT

A Graph showing a correlation between DDT usage and Polio diagnosis

Video Clips

DDT spraying.


More about Carson


A clip of “A Small Wonder” a bibliographical play about Rachel Carson, actress Kaiulani Lee plays her


Links to the pictures I used

Top picture:


DDT Picture


Polio Graph







About envirolit

Professor of Environmental Literature
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