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Rachel Carson | Biography

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Childhood and Education

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania. The third and youngest child of Maria and Robert Carson, she grew up on a 65-acre farm where her love of nature was born. Guided by her mother, a former teacher, Carson spent much time exploring the land and observing wildlife.

Carson finished high school and attended the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University). She had interests in both science and English but chose biology, a field rarely pursued by women at the time. She graduated with honors in 1929. Her academic achievements earned her a fellowship at Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory, as well as a scholarship for graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. Carson earned a master's degree in zoology in 1932. She taught for five years at the University of Maryland and was later hired as a marine biologist by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, a government agency charged with the preservation of fisheries.

Early Writing Career

In addition to Carson's childhood love of nature, she also enjoyed reading and writing. She began her writing career as a preteen, publishing her first of three stories in St. Nicholas, a popular children's magazine of the day. Her first job upon graduating from Johns Hopkins was a temporary one writing radio scripts for the federal Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Though she was eventually hired as a biologist, her superiors noticed her writing expertise, which earned her the task of editing her colleagues' reports. Eventually, she was made editor in chief, responsible for all agency publications. She displayed an ability to explain factual information through the use of stories and clear writing, making complex ideas accessible to the lay reader. Popular magazines like Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker also published her work.

Carson's recurrent theme of the unity and balance of nature emerged in her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), which chronicles the lives of sea creatures. She explored the theme in subsequent publications as well. In 1951 The New Yorker serialized The Sea Around Us. This book earned Carson popular acclaim, as well as the National Book Award, the Burroughs Medal, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Edge of the Sea, published in 1955, was a best seller. The 1962 publication of Silent Spring sold over two million copies and earned Carson a place in history as a leader of the environmental movement.

Career as a Scientist

In the 1930s when Carson began her career as a scientist, men dominated the field. Though Carson was one of only two women scientists with the Bureau of Fisheries, she gained respect for her work as a marine biologist. She earned numerous promotions within the agency.

While working to support herself, her mother, and a relative's children, Carson pursued research, which provided content for her writing. In fact, her writing was so successful by the 1950s she was no longer dependent on her government job. During this period Carson's love of nature, expertise in biology, and her own research on the use of pesticides fueled her growing concern about the environment and ultimately led to the writing of Silent Spring.

Death and Legacy

Carson is largely credited with birthing the environmental movement. She was not the first or the only person concerned with environmental hazards in the 1950s. But she was the first who was able to synthesize the science and put it in a form that was accessible to the general public. Her work, noticed by President John F. Kennedy, sparked numerous governmental investigations into pesticide use and informed early environmental legislation.

Carson died of cancer on April 14, 1964. Credited with "creating a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed," she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

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