This piece was first published on the MBL website in 2007.
“Woods Hole is a wonderful place to come for research. There are biologists here from all over the country. If you want to talk to them, you just come here in the summer instead of traveling all around the country to find them in winter.”
— Rachel Carson, July 1951 (interview with the Falmouth Enterprise)
Rachel Carson, biologist and writer, is best remembered for her last book, Silent Spring, published in 1962. Silent Spring describes the devastating impact of chemical pesticides, such as DDT, on wildlife and the environment. The book was denounced by the American chemical industry, igniting a storm of controversy, but Carson’s detailed message was heard. Silent Spring galvanized the nascent environmental movement and, as Edward O. Wilson has written, it “became a national political force, largely responsible for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Before Silent Spring, Carson was already well known for her trilogy of books about the sea, which was her passion. Carson first lived by the sea in 1929 when she spent six summer weeks at the MBL as a beginning investigator in zoology, after having earned her bachelor’s degree at Pennsylvania College for Women. In the summer of 1932, while a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Carson returned to the MBL to carry out embryological research on teleosts (bony fish). She received her master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins in 1932. Carson’s summers in Woods Hole greatly influenced the writing of her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941).
“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
– The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson
(New York: Harper and Row, 1965)
Carson blended her talents as a biologist and a writer at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish and Wildlife Service) in Washington, where she worked from 1936 to 1952, eventually becoming chief editor of the agency’s publications. While there, Carson wrote numerous pamphlets on wildlife and conservation in her admirable style, both scientifically detailed and lyrical. In 1949, Carson took a 10-day trip on the agency’s research vessel, the Albatross III, from Woods Hole to Georges Bank. During the voyage, Carson wrote early parts of her second book, The Sea Around Us, a study of the history, ecology and uses of the ocean.
The Sea Around Us (1951) spent months on nonfiction bestseller lists, won the National Book Award, and made Carlson world famous. Carson spent July and August of 1951 in Woods Hole, on leave from the Bureau of Fisheries. While there, much of her time was taken up responding to inquiries about The Sea Around Us, but she also did some research at the MBL and at the Bureau of Fisheries station in Woods Hole that would eventually appear in her third book, The Edge of the Sea (1955). She returned to Woods Hole in summer 1952 to continue research on The Edge of the Sea, which is on coastal ecology. That year, Carson left her position at the Bureau of Fisheries to devote herself to writing full-time. Carson was a member of the MBL Corporation from 1952 until her death.
Rachel Carson died of cancer in 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland. In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Wilson, Edward O. “On Silent Spring.” In Matthiessen, Peter, ed. Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writings Of Rachel Carson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007.
Freeman, Martha, ed. Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
RESOURCES (Will prompt PDF download)
- Read an account of the time Rachel Carson spent at the MBL, including the memories of an MBL employee who knew her. “Summers in Woods Hole Spur Rachel Carson’s Love of Ocean,” by Deborah G. Scanlon, appeared in the Falmouth Enterprise in June 8, 2007.
- Rachel Carson inspires the work of MBL investigators who study the harmful effects of certan plastic compounds on reproductive health.