Women in STEM: Rachel Carson

This is another installment of our “Women in STEM” series, where we focus on the different women who pursue STEM fields. Today, we feature Rachel Carson, a prominent environmentalist. thumbnail_rachel-carson

Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist and environmentalist. She was born on May 27, 1907 on a farm in Springdale, Pennsylvania. When she was a child, she was very interested in the natural world around her, and she loved to read and write. Her childhood love for nature and writing would remain a major influence for the rest of her life.

After graduating high school at the top of her class in 1925, Carson began studying English at Pennsylvania College for Women. She hoped to become a writer, but switched her major to biology and graduated with a biology degree in 1929. She continued studying zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University. It was a major accomplishment for a woman in 1929 to attend a school as prestigious as Johns Hopkins and earn a master’s degree in a scientific field. Carson graduated with a master’s degree in zoology in 1932.

After she graduated, she worked part time at the Bureau of Fisheries. Eventually she got a full time job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she became the assistant editor of U.S. Fish and Wildlife publications. She later became editor-in-chief, which involved writing speeches and managing the library and staff for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although she ultimately decided to major in biology, Rachel Carson did not give up her dream of becoming a writer. She submitted articles to newspapers and magazines, and she published her first novel, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941. In 1952, Carson published The Sea around Us, which became a bestseller. Because her second book was so successful, she was able to resign from the Fish and Wildlife Service the next year so that she could write full time. In 1962 she published her most well-known and influential novel, Silent Spring, which sparked controversy about the effects of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment. The controversy led some to attack Carson’s professional integrity, but these accusations were ultimately unfounded.

A novel highlighting the harmful impacts pesticides had on the environment was not received well by many who were economically reliant on pesticides. The companies that produced the pesticides and the farmers that used them were making a profit, so they didn’t want to make any changes that could potentially reduce profit. However, the government stepped in and conducted an investigation on the use of pesticides in the U.S. As a result of the investigation DDT, a particularly harmful pesticide, was banned, and more stringent policies were implemented concerning the manufacture and use of pesticides.

Rachel Carson passed away on April 14, 1954 in Silver Spring, Maryland at the age of 56. Carson became a respected biologist and author during a time when it was uncommon for women to work in a scientific field. She published a novel that called for major changes in a prominent U.S. industry, knowing that the novel could potentially have a negative effect on her career. She is remembered as a scientist and environmental activist.

-Bailey Hayes

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