Silent Spring

Promotion and reception

Carson and the others involved with publication of Silent Spring expected fierce criticism and were concerned about the possibility of being sued for libel. Carson was undergoing radiation therapy for her cancer and expected to have little energy to defend her work and respond to critics. In preparation for the anticipated attacks, Carson and her agent attempted to amass prominent supporters before the book's release.[32]

Most of the book's scientific chapters were reviewed by scientists with relevant expertise, among whom Carson found strong support. Carson attended the White House Conference on Conservation in May 1962; Houghton Mifflin distributed proof copies of Silent Spring to many of the delegates and promoted the upcoming serialization in The New Yorker. Carson also sent a proof copy to Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas, a long-time environmental advocate who had argued against the court's rejection of the Long Island pesticide spraying case and had provided Carson with some of the material included in her chapter on herbicides.[33]

Though Silent Spring had generated a fairly high level of interest based on pre-publication promotion, this became more intense with its serialization, 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 the American public. Around that time, Carson learned that Silent Spring had been selected as the Book-of-the-Month for October; she said 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."[34] Other publicity included a positive editorial in The New York Times and excerpts of the serialized version were published in Audubon Magazine. There was another round of publicity in July and August as chemical companies responded. The story of the birth defect-causing drug thalidomide had broken just before the book's publication, 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.[35]

In the weeks before the September 27, 1962, publication, there was strong opposition to Silent Spring from the chemical industry. DuPont, a major manufacturer of DDT and 2,4-D, and Velsicol Chemical Company, the only 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, and The New Yorker and Audubon Magazine unless their planned Silent Spring features were canceled. Chemical industry representatives and lobbyists lodged a range of non-specific complaints, some anonymously. Chemical companies and associated organizations produced 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 by William O. Douglas endorsing the book.[37]

American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among the most aggressive critics, especially of Carson's analysis of DDT.[38] According to White-Stevens, "If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth".[1] Others attacked Carson's personal character and scientific credentials, her training being in marine biology rather than biochemistry. White-Stevens called her "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature",[39] while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly said that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was "probably a Communist".[40]

Many critics repeatedly said Carson was calling for the elimination of all pesticides, but she had made it clear she was not advocating this but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals' impact on ecosystems.[41] She concludes her section on DDT in Silent Spring with advice for spraying as little as possible to limit the development of resistance.[42] Mark Hamilton Lytle writes, Carson "quite self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture".[25]

The academic community—including prominent defenders such as H. J. Muller, Loren Eisley, Clarence Cottam and Frank Egler—mostly backed the book's scientific claims and public opinion backed Carson's text. The chemical industry campaign was counterproductive because the controversy increased public awareness of the potential dangers of pesticides. Pesticide use became a major public issue after a CBS Reports television special, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson", which was broadcast on April 3, 1963. The program included segments of Carson reading from Silent Spring and interviews with other experts, mostly critics including White-Stevens. According to biographer Linda Lear, "in juxtaposition to the wild-eyed, loud-voiced Dr. Robert White-Stevens in white lab coat, Carson appeared anything but the hysterical alarmist that her critics contended".[43] Reactions from the estimated audience of ten to fifteen million were overwhelmingly positive and the program spurred a congressional review of pesticide hazards and the public release of a pesticide report by the President's Science Advisory Committee.[44] Within a year of publication, attacks on the book and on Carson had lost momentum.[45][46]

In one of her last public appearances, Carson testified before President John F. Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee, which issued its report on May 15, 1963, largely backing Carson's scientific claims.[47] Following the report's release, Carson also testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee to make policy recommendations. Though Carson received hundreds of other speaking invitations, she was unable to accept most of them because her health was steadily declining, with only brief periods of remission. She spoke as much as she could, and appeared on The Today Show and gave speeches at several dinners held in her honor. In late 1963, she received a flurry of awards and honors: the Audubon Medal from the National Audubon Society, the Cullum Medal from the American Geographical Society, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.[48]

During a Reddit Ask Me Anything session with naturalist Sir David Attenborough, he was asked which book, other than the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, had changed the scientific world the most. He listed Silent Spring as his answer.[49]

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