Rachel Carson Breaks to Silence on DDT

Excerpted in the New Yorker three months before it was published as a book, biologist Rachel Carson's eloquent, rigorous attack on the overuse of DDT and other pesticides—she called them "elixirs of death"—had already upset the chemical industry.

Velsicol, maker of two top bug killers, threatened to sue the book's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, which stood firm but asked a toxicologist to recheck Carson's facts before it shipped Silent Spring to bookstores.

Carson spent publication day in her home in Silver Spring, Md., preparing for speeches and a book tour, according to biographer Linda Lear. In a letter to a friend, Carson called Silent Spring "something I believed in so deeply that there was no other course; nothing that ever happened made me even consider turning back." When the book appeared, industry critics assailed "the hysterical woman," but it became an instant best seller with lasting impact. It spurred the banning of DDT in the U.S., the passage of major environmental laws and eventually a global treaty to phase out 12 pesticides known as "the dirty dozen." Carson died, at 56, of cancer less than two years after the book's publication, but if she were alive today, she would undoubtedly warn about hundreds of other chemicals still released recklessly into nature.

When Silent Spring was published in 1962, the chemical industry mocked its author, calling her an alarmist. Carson, who was fighting a battle against breast cancer, would not be beaten and fought hard, not for her life but for her convictions.

President John F. Kennedy, as a result of her efforts, set up a Science Advisory Committee to study the problem she addressed. The committee issued a pesticide report in May 1963, noting that while the proper use of pesticides could be considered necessary, more research was needed before they were indiscriminately sprayed.

That was just the beginning of the effects of Silent Spring. In the United States it led, as already noted, to the eventual banning of DDT in 1972, as well as to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which developed various regulations such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

However, much of this fruit remained unseen by Carson, who died of cancer in 1964 at the age of 56. And while the science that undergirded her claims regarding DDT has been reevaluated and in many cases superseded in the intervening years, her life’s work was clearly instrumental in the creation of a more environmentally conscious world.

“The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind—that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done,” Carson wrote to a friend. “Now I can believe I have at least helped a little.”

Though Silent Spring had generated a fairly high level of interest based on pre-publication promotion, this became much more intense with the serialization in The New Yorker, which began in the June 16, 1962 issue. This brought the book to the attention of the chemical industry and its lobbyists, as well as a wide swath of the American populace. Around that time Carson also learned that Silent Spring had been selected as the Book-of-the-Month for October; as she put it, this would "carry it to farms and hamlets all over that country that don't know what a bookstore looks like—much less The New Yorker." Other publicity included a positive editorial in The New York Times and excerpts of the serialized version in Audubon Magazine, with another round of publicity in July and August as chemical companies responded. The story of the birth defect-causing drug thalidomide broke just before the book's publication as well, inviting comparisons between Carson and Frances Oldham Kelsey, the Food and Drug Administration reviewer who had blocked the drug's sale in the United States.

In the weeks leading up to the September 27 publication there was strong opposition to Silent Spring. DuPont (a main manufacturer of DDT and 2,4-D) and Velsicol Chemical Company (exclusive manufacturer of chlordane and heptachlor) were among the first to respond. DuPont compiled an extensive report on the book's press coverage and estimated impact on public opinion. Velsicol threatened legal action against Houghton Mifflin as well as The New Yorker and Audubon Magazine unless the planned Silent Spring features were canceled. Chemical industry representatives and lobbyists also lodged a range of non-specific complaints, some anonymously. Chemical companies and associated organizations produced a number of their own brochures and articles promoting and defending pesticide use. However, Carson's and the publishers' lawyers were confident in the vetting process Silent Spring had undergone. The magazine and book publications proceeded as planned, as did the large Book-of-the-Month printing (which included a pamphlet endorsing the book by William O. Douglas).