State ready to honor Carson

Biologist detailed pesticides' problems

March 04, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,[Sun writer]

One hundred years after her birth and nearly 45 years since publication of her environmental call to action, Silent Spring, Maryland is preparing to honor Rachel Louise Carson.

"She's in the pantheon of environmental stars," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who is sponsoring a bill to designate her May 27 birthday as Rachel Carson Day. "Of all the Marylanders who contributed to our well-being and the world's, she's up there."

Silent Spring was more than a best-seller. The ground-breaking book made the connection between the indiscriminate use of pesticides, such as DDT, and the destruction of animals and plants.

Carson lived in Maryland for more than 35 years as a student, teacher, biologist, writer and - finally - reluctant celebrity. She attended graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University and was a member of the University of Maryland's zoology staff. While working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she supplemented her income by writing for The Sun in the late 1930s.

Carson researched and wrote Silent Spring at her Silver Spring home, much of it while sitting on her back porch surrounded by flowers and her bird feeders. She died of breast cancer April 14, 1964, at the age of 56.

Frosh acknowledges Maryland is playing catch-up. Carson's birth state, Pennsylvania, has observed her birthday for almost 10 years. Health activists in Toronto use the day to promote breast cancer awareness. Other governments - such as Takoma Park and Cape May, N.J. - have set the date aside for her.

The Montgomery County Democrat said he was surprised to learn that the state had done little to honor Carson.

"She's the mother of the environmental movement, period," Frosh said. "This is a great woman, and we ought to be taking credit for her."

Elsewhere, the centennial bandwagon is rolling.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started an online book club this month to discuss her work. It will run until November (rcbookclub.blogspot.com).

On March 22, the National Archives will show the 1963 CBS documentary The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson and display documents relating to her career.

Before Tuesday's hearing on the Frosh bill, the Virginia-based Newton Marasco Foundation will announce a Rachel Carson Scholar Program for high school juniors and seniors who participate in environmental activities.

Amy Marasco Newton said she hopes within five years to fund scholars across the country to encourage stewardship.

"For me, the centennial is about celebrating Rachel Carson's contributions, and the scholar program is about continuing her legacy with the next generation so that she is not forgotten again," Newton said.

Before Silent Spring, Carson wrote three other books about the environment. The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, was on the national best-seller lists for nearly 1 1/2 years, spending almost half that time at No. 1. She used her profits to have a house built in the woodsy Silver Spring subdivision of Quaint Acres and to buy a cottage on the coast of Maine.

In Silent Spring's re-release five years ago, former Vice President Al Gore wrote in the book's introduction that it marked "the beginning of the environmental movement" and showed the power of one person.

Before its September 1962 publication, the book was attacked as "hysterical" by chemical companies. A trade magazine predicted: "It is fairly safe to hope that by March or April, Silent Spring will no longer be an interesting conversational subject."

Three sponsors withdrew from the CBS show and 1,000 protest letters arrived at the network. Time magazine called her conclusions "patently unsound." Even the American Medical Association found fault.

But Americans were riveted, and President John F. Kennedy ordered an investigation into the dangers of pesticides in 1962. When Kennedy's panel of scientists concluded in a 1963 report that toxic chemicals had the potential to be "a much greater hazard" than radioactive fallout, the tide turned.

DDT was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.

And in 1999, Time magazine named Carson one of its 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com.

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