“It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.”
Those are the closing words of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 work, Silent Spring, about the dangers of pesticides. Silent Spring has been credited with launching the modern environmental movement. It might never have made it into bookstores if it weren't for the efforts of a venerable Boston publisher.
She may have had a master’s degree in zoology and a successful career as a marine biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, but it turns out Rachel Carson’s real gift was as a writer.
"Rachel Carson is really, probably the most important author that Houghton Mifflin has published in the 20th Century, in my opinion," said Deanne Urmy, senior executive editor at Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. For years, Urmy has worked with Rachel Carson biographer Linda Lear.
"She was masterful as a writer," said Urmy. "She’s a brilliant science writer. Her passion communicates. She’s steely-nerved. She’s just a model as a writer about science, the natural world."
Critical acclaim mounted for Carson through the 1940s and 50s for a trilogy of natural history books about sea life. Houghton Mifflin published the last one, edited by Paul Brooks – noted for his work with, among others, poet Archibald McLeish and Winston Churchill.
"[He was an] old fashioned editor to be sure," said Urmy, who knew Brooks in his later years. "He would take a month or two off every summer and go on a road trip out west to be in the wilderness, but also to visit his famous naturalist writers one by one. Rachel Carson felt that he was her strongest ally."
In the late 1950s, amidst America's post-war population explosion and the nation's seemingly unstoppable industrial growth, Carson’s refocused her attention on the environment.
"She was a naturalist, and she loved birds," said Urmy. "And she was getting letters from all over the country, eventually, about how women in garden clubs were finding dead birds after pesticides had been sprayed."
It quickly became clear to Carson that the two were linked.
She tried to write about the topic for magazines," said Urmy, "No one would say yes. She actually even tried to get other people to write this book and nobody would say yes. And so, finally, she had to do it and she told Paul Brooks, and Paul Brooks was her absolute champion at Houghton Mifflin – publishing this book."
Doggedly researched, Silent Spring, spelled out the dangers that powerful synthetic pesticides like DDT posed not just to wildlife, but the entire balance of our ecosystem.
"It took her four years, and it was really difficult," explained Urmy. "She was all alone. She wasn’t attached to any institution or University. She was a woman, unmarried, in the 1950s. She also wrote it knowing she would be attacked, viciously, by the chemical industry – and she was."
In the months before its publication, Silent Spring was serialized in The New Yorker – and it became immediately clear that Carson and Houghton Mifflin had a massive hit (and a big controversy) – on their hands.
"The chemical industry not only attacked her, but attacked Houghton Mifflin," said Urmy. "To read the letters back and forth between Houghton Mifflin lawyers and the lawyers from the chemical industry – really dramatic. They’re powerful. I mean, as an editor they made me scared."
Despite threats of legal action from chemical companies, Houghton Mifflin pushed forward, and on September 27, 1962, Silent Spring was released to the public.
"Nobody had any reason to doubt that Rachel Carson didn’t have her facts right," said Urmy. "And sure enough she was supported by so many people, so many scientists, and very soon JFK set up a very special panel of his US Science Committee to investigate the evidence that Rachel Carson had brought forward."
The book and committee hearings led to creation of the EPA, the outright banning of the pesticide DDT, and other dramatic changes in US Law. Carson testified before that panel in one of the last public appearances, not long before her death in 1964 at age 56.
"She was doing this all the while suffering from advanced metastatic breast cancer," explained Urmy. "She was really ill. She probably knew that her life was close to over. She was being treated with heavy metals and things that she must have known were terminally damaging to her own body, and I’ve always wondered if she made that connection to the way that she felt about pesticides in the natural world."
Silent Spring has never been out of print - and is widely credited with igniting the modern environmental movement. Famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough has said that the scientific impact of Silent Spring was rivaled by only one other book – Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
"Rachel Carson, I think, was the first person who told us that environmental damage could be irreversible," said Urmy, "She made us understand that human beings could overpower the health of the environment. She was one woman who said, ‘no, actually, no that’s not right.’ She had faith, somehow, that getting it right on the page would be the most powerful thing to do. And it was."