Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Mieography

I chose this weeks lady in honor of Earth Day

Rachel Louise Carson was born in 1907, on a small farm in Pennsylvania, near the Allegheny river. Her mother taught Rachel, and her older brother and sister lessons in nature study in the nearby ponds, fields, and forests. She was an avid reader, and even started writing at a very young age. They had a 65 acre farm. She had her first story published when she was eleven years old. She had the usual elementary, and high school education, graduating at the top of her class in 1925. She continued on to college at the Pennsylvania College for Women, (which is now Chatham University), majoring, initially in English, but then switching to a major in Biology. She was eventually accepted at Johns Hopkins University, but could not afford the tuition, so she stayed where she was, and graduated Magna Cum Laude. She took some summer courses at the Marine Biological Library, and then, able to do so, continued her studies at Johns Hopkins in zoology and genetics. She was a part time student there, and worked as an assistant in a laboratory, where she worked with rats, to earn money. She had a few false starts on her dissertation (involving, initially, squirrels, and then pit vipers) but finally completed one on the subject of embryonic development of the pronephros in fish (huh? anyone?). She earned her Masters Degree in zoology. She wanted to continue on to her doctorate, but, the pesky money situation interfered. Her father had died, and she needed to help support the family. She was searching for a full time teaching degree, but ended up, with the help of friends, working at a temporary position with the US Bureau of Fisheries writing radio copy for a series entitled "Romance Under the Waters". It focused on aquatic life, hoping to interest the public in fish biology, and the work of the bureau. She also began submitting articles to a magazine called Chesapeake Bay, based on her research for the radio show. Her supervisor was so pleased with her work that he asked her to write the introduction to thee public brochure about the bureau, and helped to secure her a full time permanent position. She had the job title of junior aquatic biologist.
     Now that she was full time, her main responsibility was to analyze and report data on fish populations and to continue writing brochures and other literature for public consumption. She also wrote many articles for the local newspapers. Tragically, her older sister died, and Rachel became the sole breadwinner for her entire family.
In July 1937, an essay she wrote "Undersea", was published in the Atlantic Monthly. It was a narrative of a journey along the ocean floor. An agent at Simon and Schuster contacted her about turning it into a book. It took her several years, but she eventually published "Under the Sea Wind", which got good reviews, but sold poorly. She continued writing articles and having success.
     She wanted to leave the bureau, which had by now transformed into the Fish and Wildlife Services, but few jobs for naturalists were available, most of the money for science was being thrown at the Manhattan Project.
     Instead, she rose in rank at the Fish and Wildlife Service, supervising a small staff of writers, and becoming the chief editor of publications. She was working on material for her second book, and made the decision to begin to transition to full time writing. Her second book, published by Oxford University Press was "The Sea Around Us". It was on the bestseller list of the NY Times for 86 weeks, and won multiple awards. They even made it into a documentary. She was also awarded two honorary doctorates, and she finally gained enough financial security to quit her job, and focus on writing full time. She began to go out on speaking engagements, and working on the documentary script. She did not like the script that eventually got made, but found she had no rights to stop it. She'd only had the right to "review" it. She considered it "a cross between a believe it or not and a breezy travelogue". Despite her protests, it was a very successful documentary, and even won an Oscar. Rachel never sold the film rights to her work again, however.
     In 1953, Rachel and her mother moved to Southport Island, Maine, where she met her "romantic friend" Dorothy Freeman. Their is much speculation about their relationship, still. The letters they wrote to each other (that weren't destroyed) were eventually made into a book. There is still debate whether it was a homosexual or heterosexual relationship. The fact is, it doesn't really matter, they had a strong, supportive, lasting, enduring friendship that they both valued.
     A third book, "The Edge of the Sea" was written about the ecology and organisms on the Atlantic Shore. It got high revews, and did well. She worked on many projects for the next few years, but found her interests turning more and more to conservation. She bought an area in Maine called "The Lost Woods" to preserve it from development. In the meantime, one of her nieces died tragically, leaving a five year old son whom Rachel adopted. She was caring for him, and her aging mother. They ended up moving to Maryland.
     By 1957, Rachel began to closely follow federal proposals on pesticides. The rest of her career was focused on the dangers of pesticide overuse. She started another book called "Silent Spring", about the damages of widespread DDT, which got multiple agencies in an uproar. She did years and years of research both on her own, and with multiple other agencies, about the damages of pesticides, and the harm they were causing the human race. She ended up sick, herself, though with ulcers, and eventually, cysts in her breasts, causing the need for a mastectomy, and metastatic breast cancer. Eventually, however, "Silent Spring" was published. At that time, Rachel was undergoing radiation treatment for her cancer, and was expected to have little energy to devote to defending her work and responding to the many critics. "Silent Spring", among other things, labeled DDT as a "chemical carcinogen" and basically blew the whistle on the whole pesticide movement. Many environmental activists rallied to her side, to defend her work for her, including the Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. Exerpts from the book were published in almost every local newspaper, spreading the news of harmful pesticides far and wide. The companies that manufactured the pesticides were in strong opposition to the bbook, and tried their best to prevent it's release date, even threatening legal action. This did not stop the roll out of the book, and it was even "book of the month". One of the detractors of the book even called her "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature". (I think we should all be called that) and another wrote a letter to the president, (Eisenhower) stating that because Rachel was unmarried, she was "probably a communist". They tried to label her an alarmist, but she appeared, in public, to be anything BUT an alarmist. The attacks on her, and the book, lost their momentum in less than a year.
     In one of her last public appearances, she testified before President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee, which backed her claims. Her health, related to the cancer, steadily declined, with only brief periods of remission. She did as much public speaking as she could, but in the end, she got a respiratory infection, became weakened, and anemic, and eventually died of a heart attack in 1964, at the young age of 56.
I cannot imagine what Rachel would think of the Earth today. We've taken many positive steps to reclaiming the Earth, and some backward ones. She leaves a legacy, both with her books, and her unpublished papers that have now been published.


Bubblewench said...

WOW.. that one blew me away.. interesting.