When Rachel Carson testified before the Senate in 1963 she was roundly hailed, as Harriet Beecher Stowe had been by Abraham Lincoln, as "the little lady who started it all." Carson's huge 1962 best-seller, Silent Spring, had revealed to the public the dangers of DDT and other pesticides to birds, animals and human health. Early press accounts and biographies painted Carson as a lone genius whose single book sparked the environmental movement.
Rachel Carson disagreed. Carson was an active and proud participant in politics and the environmental movement that had already been warning about pesticides, early signals of global warming, habitat loss, species decline and more. The launch of Silent Spring, in the manner of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, was carefully strategized and supported by Rachel with her politically savvy literary agent, Marie Rodell and included special editions by the Audubon Society, the Consumer's Union and selection by the Book of the Month Club with extravagant praise from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the leading environmentalist on the court, and a popular nature writer in his own right.
Carson also worked closely with President Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall and his chief of staff, Paul Knight, in crafting legislation and environmental strategy, helping with speeches and, backed by the pre-Earth Day movement, working to get an environmental department that eventually would become the Environmental Protection Agency.
Carson's close friend and confidante, Marjorie Spock, was a central figure in the lawsuit attacking aerial spraying of DDT and served as a social media organizer for the growing movement. Spock, the sister of noted anti-war pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock, sent out a steady stream of updates, research, requests for help and more from her early model, smelly thermofax machine.
Today, fifty years after Rachel Carson's death from breast cancer in the spring of 1964, Carson's influence is intense, her legacy a living one. She continues to be attacked by right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh who hope to tarnish her reputation and hence her political heirs.
But, more importantly, Rachel Carson has inspired new leaders and a stronger movement. Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that worked closely with Carson, has been the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where Carson started her career. Clark proudly shows where Carson sat, and has named her son Carson. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), the son of Stewart Udall, recalls meeting Carson in his youth and is now an environmental leader in the Senate. The Sierra Club, that has a Rachel Carson Society and received royalties from Silent Spring, today fights coal, fracking and air pollution -- all of which Carson would have opposed.
New writers carry on Carson's legacy of luminous prose, scientific training, the ability to reach and inspire large audiences and political activism. Terry Tempest Williams, Sandra Steingraber, Devra Davis and Theo Colborn, among others, directly claim Rachel Carson as their hero and their continuing motivation to write and act. They have testified before Congress, appeared at international treaty negotiations and organized against the environmental causes of cancer, endocrine disrupting chemicals, global climate change and more.
After Rachel Carson's death fifty years ago, her estranged brother, Robert, arranged the equivalent of a state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington against her expressed wishes. Her closest friends and colleagues, Marie Rodell, Shirley Briggs, Irston Barnes and others, held instead a quiet, moving memorial at All Souls Unitarian Church. They read from her work, spoke of continuing her legacy, and then went back to writing, organizing and building a movement.
Robert K. Musil is the author of Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America's Environment (Rutgers, 2014) and the President and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council.