Chatham University

About Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, writer, scientist, and ecologist, grew up simply in the rural river town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her mother bequeathed to her a life-long love of nature and the living world that Rachel expressed first as a writer and later as a student of marine biology. Carson graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

She was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to write radio scripts during the Depression and supplemented her income writing feature articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun. She began a fifteen-year career in the federal service as a scientist and editor in 1936 and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and edited scientific articles, but in her free time turned her government research into lyric prose, first as an article "Undersea" (1937, for the Atlantic Monthly), and then in a book, Under the Sea-wind (1941). In 1952 she published her prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us, which was followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955. These books constituted a biography of the ocean and made Carson famous as a naturalist and science writer for the public. Carson resigned from government service in 1952 to devote herself to her writing.

She wrote several other articles designed to teach people about the wonder and beauty of the living world, including "Help Your Child to Wonder," (1956) and "Our Ever-Changing Shore" (1957), and planned another book on the ecology of life. Embedded within all of Carson's writing was the view that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly.

Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II, Carson reluctantly changed her focus in order to warn the public about the long term effects of misusing pesticides. In Silent Spring (1962) she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world.

Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment. Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all its creatures.

Biographical entry courtesy of Carson biographer © Linda Lear, 1998, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997).

Books by Rachel L. Carson

Under the Sea-Wind - New York, Oxford University Press (1941)

Celebrating the mystery and beauty of birds and sea creatures in their natural habitat, Under the Sea-Wind - Rachel Carson's first book and her personal favorite - is the early masterwork of one of America's greatest nature writers. Evoking the special mystery and beauty of the shore and the open sea-its limitless vistas and twilight depths-Carson's astonishingly intimate, unforgettable portrait captures the delicate negotiations of an ingeniously calibrated ecology

The Sea Around Us - New York, Oxford University Press (1951)

This classic work remains as fresh today as when it first appeared. Carson's writing teems with stunning, memorable images--the newly formed Earth cooling beneath an endlessly overcast sky; the centuries of nonstop rain that created the oceans; giant squids battling sperm whales hundreds of fathoms below the surface; and incredibly powerful tides moving 100 billion tons of water daily in the Bay of Fundy.  The Sea Around Us is based on post World War II geographical and oceanographic evidence of the life and work of the sea. It is a study of the processes that formed the earth, the moon, and the oceans. It won the National Book Award in 1952 and made Carson an international voice for the public understanding of science.

The Edge of the Sea- Boston, Houghton Mifflin (1955)

A book to be read for pleasure as well as a practical identification guide, The Edge of the Sea introduces a world of teeming life where the sea meets the land.

Silent Spring - Boston, Houghton Mifflin (1962)

Silent Spring alerted a large audience to the environmental and human dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides, spurring revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. “Silent Spring became a runaway bestseller, with international reverberations . . . [It is] well crafted, fearless and succinct . . . Even if she had not inspired a generation of activists, Carson would prevail as one of the greatest nature writers in American letters” (Peter Matthiessen, for Time’s 100 Most Influential People of the Century).

The Sense of Wonder - Harper & Row (1965)

Not long before she died in 1964, the noted environmental writer Rachel Carson wrote an essay for Woman's Home Companion magazine called "Helping Your Child to Wonder." In that essay--reprinted here, with photographs of natural subjects by Nick Kelsh--Carson urged parents to take their children to wild places in order to introduce them to the astonishing variety of life that exists all around us: to study birds, listen to the winds, and observe the stars. Too much of the child's subsequent education, she warns, will be devoted to dimming that "clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring" with which children are born; it is the parent's task to be an adult guide who can in turn rediscover the "excitement and mystery of the world we live in."