Rachel Louise Carson was born to Maria Frazier and Robert Warden Carson, an insurance salesman, on May 27, 1907, on a family farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. In her childhood she explored nature and read literature, also writing and publishing her own stories in magazines, like the St. Nicholas Magazine for children. She loved Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and stories about the sea. At the Pennsylvania College for Women (Chatham University) she majored in English, but switched to biology. She graduated magna cum laude in 1929, then entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins in zoology and genetics. With a master’s degree in zoology in 1932 she planned on completing a Ph.D. but had to take a full-time teaching job to support her family. Later she took a job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio copy for weekly broadcasts called “Romance Under the Waters,” the basis for her later books and articles on marine life. She was only the second woman to be hired by the Bureau of Fisheries (The Fish and Wildlife Service) as a professional biologist in 1936.
Carson began publishing with the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, and then brought out books, such as Under the Sea Wind (1941). In 1948 she met her literary agent and lifelong friend, Marie Rodell, who helped her establish a full-time literary career. Oxford University Press wanted her to do a history of the sea. Over several years she published various pieces in the New Yorker of what would become The Sea Around Us (1950), a book that made the New York Timesbest-seller List, became a Reader’s Digest publication, a documentary film, and won the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In 1955 she published the third volume of her sea trilogy, The Edge of the Sea, focusing on coastal ecosystems.
She became increasingly interested in conservation and considered various themes for a book. In 1957 she began research on what would become her best-known book, Silent Spring (1962). She had been researching pesticides since the 1940s and had many connections among scientists who had done research on the topic. In FDA hearings and in advance articles on pesticides she ran into the aggressive opposition of chemical companies. The pesticide-cancer connection was very new and controversial.
Carson’s progress on Silent Spring was slow due to her own battle with cancer. She had a mastectomy for breast cancer, but the disease had metastasized. After making every effort after publication to publicize the book and appear at hearings to testify on the DDT menace, Rachel Carson succumbed to the complications of cancer with a heart attack on April 14, 1964. Her agent, Marie Rodell, published posthumously her essay for parents and children on enjoying nature, “A Sense of Wonder,” in 1965, and in 1998, Carson’s unpublished work was published as Lost Woods, edited by Linda Lear. Silent Spring was the catalyst the environmental movement needed in the 1960s, and its effect has been a lasting achievement.