An aerosol can, loaded with DDT, Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, is used against flies.

Credit: AP

55 Years Since 'Silent Spring,' Rachel Carson's Work Is Needed More Than Ever

June 13, 2017

In June of 1962, the first installation of Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" erupted into print, exposing the deadly dangers of the pesticide DDT.

“The term 'biocide' would be more appropriate than ‘insecticide,” Carson wrote in a piece published in The New Yorker. “All the more appropriate because the whole process of spraying poisons on the earth seems to have been caught up in an endless spiral.”

“Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental,” Carson continued, “as though we had lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?”

Carson’s work helped inspire an international environmental movement, bringing about organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.

Carson was, as historian Nancy Koehn described her, “One woman with a network of connections and an astounding work ethic, and the ability to take a very complicated subject, piece together all its different parts, and then present it to the public in a book called 'Silent Spring' that is imminently, compellingly, thrillingly readable,” Koehn said.

Exactly 55 years later, the United States finds itself led by a presidential administration that refuses to acknowledge the impact of climate change, going so far as to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

In 2017, is Carson’s work long-forgotten? Or is it time for a renewal, a call for a modern-day "Silent Spring"?

According to Koehn, if Carson were alive today, she would consider recent climate events a call to arms. “If her spirit is wafting over this studio, (and bless you if it is, Rachel) she is saying, get to work, citizens,” Koehn said. “Do not accept this.”


December 1961: The New Yorker promises to publish the first installation of “Silent Spring”.

August 1962: President Kennedy mentions “Silent Spring” in a press conference, and the President's Science Advisory Committee begins studying DDT.

October 1962: The FDA blocks thalidomide, after studies show it affects prenatal development.

May 1962: President Kennedy issues a report based on Carson’s warnings about pesticides.

1963: The Clean Air Act is passed.

1964: The Wilderness Act is passed.

April 11, 1964: Rachel Carson dies at age 58 in Silver Spring, Md.

Nancy Koehn holds the James E. Robison Chair of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Her forthcoming book is Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times. To hear her entire segment with “Boston Public Radio,” click on the audio player above. 

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