Rachel Carson's Silence Biographer Linda Lear Says the Outspoken Environmentalist Was Heroic Partly for What She Didn't Talk About

Article excerpt

A year and a half ago, with symposia and reverential speeches, the United States and much of the world marked the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" and her courageous warnings about environmental threats.

Monday -- the 50th anniversary of Carson's death -- is an opportune time to admire her equally courageous silence about matters that could have blunted the book's impact.

Most people are surprised to learn that Carson lived only about 18 months after the publication of "Silent Spring." On April 14, 1964, a month shy of her 57th birthday, Carson died in the Maryland suburb of Silver Spring of complications of metastasizing breast cancer. Sadly, she had become a polarizing figure in an increasingly vituperative political atmosphere.

Carson did not live to see the positive impact of her message -- prohibition of the agrichemicals aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor; passage of the National Environmental Policy Act; establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the banning of DDT in the United States in 1972 and the end of its use by much of the world's agriculture within the half-century.

Nor did Carson live long enough to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Jimmy Carter awarded it to her posthumously in 1980) or to be present in 2008 when the post office in her hometown of Springdale was named in her honor. She never celebrated the first Earth Day or rejoiced in the rise of environmental consciousness worldwide that her work inspired.

But Carson did live long enough to witness the positive impact of her work in three important public events.

First, she appeared with quiet confidence on the acclaimed TV documentary "CBS Reports," the forerunner of "60 Minutes," in April 1963. Although many in the petrochemical industry and medical establishment rudely demanded Carson's "silence," her appearance reached millions of people who may not have read her book but were convinced by her evidence that pesticides were being misused. Many also were appalled by the ignorance of government officials who were interviewed on the show.

Second, she lived long enough to be vindicated by the President's Science Advisory Committee's report on "Use of Pesticides." The report, released May 15, 1963, affirmed her allegations and concluded with astonishing candor that until the publication of "Silent Spring," the American public did not know that pesticides were toxic.

Finally, in early June, despite increasingly serious angina attacks, she testified before two Senate subcommittees on the interdependence of the human and natural worlds and the dangers that unregulated pesticide use posed to both.

The public was shocked by the news of Carson's death on that warm spring evening 10 months later. Only a few people had known about the desperate state of her health. Jay McMullen, the producer of the "CBS Reports" segment, suspected she was ill when he interviewed her in Maine in September 1962. Two months later, when he and Eric Sevareid, the distinguished host of the show, finished filming at Carson's home in Silver Spring, Sevareid expressed shock at how ill Carson appeared. He urged McMullen to finish the program quickly, telling him, "You've got a dead leading lady."

Between the publication of "Silent Spring" and her death, Carson purposely deflected speculation about her health.

In June 1963, when Carson appeared before California Sen. Abraham Ribicoff's subcommittee investigating pesticides and other pollutants, she spoke energetically and eloquently for 40 minutes. Few of the mostly male participants noticed that she wore an ill- fitting dark wig and used a cane. After that, Carson rarely appeared in public. Most of her friends, even some of her closest ones in Maryland, simply never knew she had been battling cancer for much of the nearly five years it had taken to research and write "Silent Spring."

Why did Rachel Carson so deliberately cut herself off from the support of caring friends? …