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