Historical Markers
Rachel Carson Historical Marker
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Rachel Carson

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Pittsburgh Street (SR 1001, old PA 28) & Colfax Street in Springdale

Dedication Date:
May 20, 1988

Behind the Marker

Color photograph, head shot.
Rachel Carson, circa 1944.
From her earliest days on the family homestead outside of Springdale, Pennsylvania, Rachel Carson always had two loves: nature and writing. "I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn't assume I was going to be a writer," recalled Carson in 1954. "Also, I can remember no time when I wasn't interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature. Those interests, I know, I inherited from my mother and have always shared with her."

Growing up just north of Pittsburgh, Carson spent much of her childhood on the banks of the Allegheny River and under the shade of the trees in her family's orchards. But it was during her second year at the Pennsylvania College for Women that her love of nature started to shape itself into the career for which she became known. After earning a degree in biology, Carson embarked on a career that would lend legitimacy to the cause of environmental and ecological protection.
 Lititz farmer with chemicals and fertilizers
Chemicals and fertilizers used in an average year on a 78-acre farm, Lititz,...

Studying at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, she developed a love for the sea and became one of the first two women hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as a researcher and science writer. Her first brush with fame came in 1941 with publication of Under the Sea. The success of her next book, The Sea Around Us (1951), provided her financial security and cemented her reputation as both a scientist and a writer.

But it is not for her work with the ocean that Carson is best remembered. By the late 1950s Carson had become concerned about the correlation between insecticide use and the disappearance of songbirds across the nation. Assisted by ornithologists and other scientists, Carson conducted a thorough and systematic investigation that documented the deadly effects of many widely used chemical pesticides.

Rachel Carson leaning against a tree, her face turned to the camera.
Rachel Carson
Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1962, Silent Spring became an instant bestseller. In her clear and eloquent prose, Carson explained how DDT and other synthetic chemicals were killing far more species than they had targeted. Carson documented how the poisons remained in the environment for years, becoming increasingly toxic and eventually impacting not just insects, but also wildlife and humans. "For the first time in history, every human being is now subject to contact with dangerous chemicals from the moment of conception until death," wrote Carson. "In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world – the very nature of life itself."

First introduced during World War II, DDT was a cheap and effective insecticide. A potent killer of lice, mosquitoes, and other insects that carried typhus, malaria, and other microscopic human predators, it was considered the "atomic bomb of the insect world." After the war, hundreds of millions of pounds of DDT and other powerful chemical insecticides were sprayed indiscriminately to control mosquitoes, fire ants, and other insects that preyed upon American agriculture. But while chemical manufacturers and farmers were touting the blessings of a world free from pests, Carson warned Americans that each year new synthetic chemicals were being released into the environment "with little or no advance investigation of their effects on soil, water, wildlife or man himself." "The question," Carson asked, "is whether any civilization can wage such relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized?"
Rachel Carson Homestead, exterior, house, front facade and grounds.
The Rachel Carson Homestead, Springdale, PA, 2007.

Silent Spring remained atop the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-one weeks. Her detailed and eloquent condemnation of the American pesticide industry had touched a chord. Unable to prevent the publication of her book, the American chemical industry sought to discredit it, claiming that Carson was a hysterical, misguided woman with communist affiliations. Industry scientists attacked her research, accusing her of "overgeneralizations and downright errors."

But her science was sound. After a Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee appointed by President Kennedy corroborated her findings in 1963, Congress began to pass a series of laws to protect life – human and non-human – in America. Today, historians consider Silent Spring one of the great books in American history, for it catalyzed the nation and gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Carson would not, however, live to see it. In 1964, at the age of fifty-six, she died of a cancer that had first been diagnosed soon after she began working on Silent Spring. As one writer put it, "A few thousand words from Rachel Carson and the world took a new direction."

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