Baylor College Medical School

American Lives- How did public attitudes to DDT make it difficult for Carson to convince people of its dangers?

     Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was a talented writer who cared deeply for nature.  Fearing for the safety of the natural world, she wrote a book that helped launch the environmental movement.

   Carson always wanted to be a writer.  In college,though, she took a biology course that fascinated her, and she switched her major from English.  After additional study, Carson taught science.  Faced with the need to support her mother and two orphaned nieces, she took a job with the Bureau of Fisheries in 1936.  At the urging of others, she submitted to a magazine an article she had written for the bureau, and it was accepted.  A publisher then asked Carson to expand the piece into a book.  The result, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), "a naturalist's picture of ocean life," was praised but did not sell well to a public suddenly worried about wor4ld war.

   It was ten year before Carson could publish her second book, The Sea Around Us.  Praised for its science and poetic exploration of the oceans' mysteries, the book was a bestseller.  More important, the book's financial success--and a fellowship she was awarded--allowed Carson to resign her job and write full time.  In 1955 she published her third book, The Edge of the Sea, a study of Atlantic Coast seashores.

   Soon Carson undertook another project--one that would have profound effect on American attitudes.  A friend of Carson had a bird sanctuary on her property.  Following state law, it had been sprayed with DDT, a pesticides,  Her friend noticed that birds were dying in large numbers.  She asked Carson to help out a stop to the use of DDT.  In her old government job, Carson had read distrubing reports about DDT.  With this new evidence of its dangers, she resolved to write about it.

   DDT had been discovered by a Swiss chemist in 1030.  It was an excellent killr of insects.  During World War II, DDT use prevented disease among soldirs and refugees.  After the war, DDT helped save millions of lives by killing mosquitoes that carry malaria.  However, DDT had problems, too.  It could not be washed off food, and it could build up to dangerous levels in animals' and humans' bodies over time.  Also, insects were acquitintg resistance to DDT.  That meant that larger doses would be needed to kill them.  Those larger doses were more dangerous to animals and humans.  Still, most people of the day knew only of DDT's successes.  It seemed like a miracle chemical.

   For years, Cartson read scientific reports about DDT and worked on a fourth book.  She found that DDT sprayed on a Michigan college campus to destroy bugs had also killed all the local robins.  She learned that DDT was responsible for the declining numbers of many bird species--including the national bird, the bald eagle.  Finally, in 1962, she published the now-classic Silent Spring.

   Carson's book was subjected to a storm of criticism from chemical companies.  She was called "hysterical," and her book, they aid, should be ignored.  The public, though, was disturbed by Carson's claims---which she had backed with research.  President Kennedy called for a special commission to investiagate.  It agreed that DDT was dangerous, and by 1969, the government was phasing out most uses of the pesticide.

   Carson's book had even more wide-ranging consequences.  She demonstrated that people were affected by whatever affected nature.  Americans' thinking changed as a result, and many people were drawn into environmental work.  Carson died from cancer less than two years after Silent Spring was published, but she lived long enough to know she had made the desired impact.


Question 1.  How did public atitudes to DDT make it difficult for Carson to convince people of its dangers?




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DDT was used for a number of productive reasons during the second World War. It was used to prevent disease among the soldiers and refugees and widespread use eliminated the mosquitoes that carried malaria and infected people. For these reason, the public looked upon DDT favorably and didn't initially believe the claims it was harmful.