Today’s A to Z Challenge post is brought to you by the letter R. R stands for Rachel Carson, one of the Ladies I Love in the field of science. If you don’t know who Rachel Carson was, as a female biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I am very proud to be able to tell you a little bit about her.
Rachel Carson lived between 1907 and 1964. She was fascinated by nature during her younger years, and went on to obtain her master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. Soon after, she got a job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (which would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) where she was one of only TWO professional women working for the organization and earned under $40 PER WEEK when she started. She did a lot of writing for radio broadcasting at that time, primarily focusing on the ocean in an effort to inform the public about the treasures that marine systems contain and the services that they provide. She moved up in the Bureau/Service and wrote several books about oceans, which hit the top of best seller lists everywhere.
It was in the mid-1940’s when she learned about DDT. I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but throughout the next couple of decades, Rachel Carson did a lot of research regarding the effects of DDT on the environment, specifically about bioaccumulation in the food web. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her book “Silent Spring”, which detailed the harmful effects of pesticides and predicted that if our irresponsible use of them continued, we would start killing off species, let alone jeopardize human health. For example, one of the effects of DDT and bioaccumulation resulted in the inability of some bird species (primarily predatory birds) to successfully reproduce because DDT weakened egg shells, resulting in eggs being crushed in the nest. Several species (e.g., peregrine falcon, pelican) were put on the Endangered Species list because of this!
There was, however, a lot of money in the pesticide industry and tremendously fierce opposition to her work, which publicized the negative effects of DDT on animals and the environment. If you simply google DDT and look through the videos that come up, you can find old footage of people being happily sprayed by CLOUDS of DDT! Rachel Carson actually received death threats and harassment because of her work and the questions it raised about the pesticide industry. In fact, Rachel Carson’s research and work gave rise to the modern grassroots environmental movement that has inspired generations to protect the world around us, AND resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. After her death (due to illnesses contracted during her treatment for breast cancer), President Carter awarded Rachel Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously for her landmark work, and in 1969, the Coastal Main National Wildlife Refuge was changed to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.
What an amazing woman and inspiration to younger generations of scientists! Few scientists can claim the magnitude of influence that she had in any field, and in particular, conservation of our natural resources. Take a look at this short video about Rachel Carson and her life’s work; there is a ton of information online as well, if you are interested in learning more (just follow any of the links I’ve provided above to start).
Additionally, just this past March (Women’s History Month), the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Ashe, honored Rachel Carson with this video.