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Rachel Carson: Defender of the Natural World

Black and White photograph of Rachel Carson holding her book, Silent Spring, 1963

Photograph of Rachel Carson holding her book, Silent Spring. Associated Press,1963. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This post was written by Science Reference Specialist Ashley Cuffia.

March is Women’s History Month, in which we celebrate dedicated, inventive, and courageous women and their contributions to history. One such woman was Rachel Carson (1907-1964). As a marine biologist, author, and conservationist, Carson advanced the modern environmental movement through her work and writings. To learn about her work and influence, check out our Rachel Carson: A resource guide.

The impact of Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring (1962) is still felt today as our awareness of environmental contaminants continues to grow. Her pioneering studies led to the national ban on Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. This widely used pesticide caused the weakening of the shells of the eggs of many breeds of birds and led to a massive decline in birthrates across bird species, including the near extinction of the bald eagle. By bringing this research development to the scientific community in time, Rachel Carson was able to help many of the affected species make substantial recoveries.

In addition to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson authored and published three more books during her lifetime, each of which was critically acclaimed and widely read. A fifth book,  The Sense of Wonder, was illustrated and posthumously published in 1965.

photograph of a woodland trail along alongside estuarian marshes in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Reserve.

Woodland trail alongside estuarian marshes in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Reserve. Photographer Carol Highsmith, 2017. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Library has a few unique items related to the life and work of Rachel Carson in the Manuscript Collections:

  • Agnes Elizabeth Ernst Meyer papers, 1853-1972
    • Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. This collection contains roughly 29 letters (Box 11) with Carson about her health problems, activism around the use of insecticides, discussion on fire ants, and the promotion of Silent Spring – including some involvement/activism by various women’s clubs.
  • Edward O. Wilson Papers,1931-2015
    • Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. This collection contains roughly 13 letters (Box 36) between Carson and Wilson that are academic in nature, such as recommending sources, comments on lectures, and discussion on publications that involve insects, insecticides, and fire ants.

You can also find newspaper articles via the Chronicling America Historical American Newspapers collection:

If you want to learn more about women throughout history like Rachel Carson who have made amazing discoveries, creative inventions or excelled in a field that was traditionally dominated by men take a look at our Women of Science: A Resource Guide.

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