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Author, actress, and historian Leslie Goddard transformed into biologist, ecologist, and science writer Rachel Carson on Tuesday, April 28 as part of a virtual Levy Lecture Series. In response to the Levy Senior Center’s being closed for activities and entertainment, the Levy Senior Center Foundation created a special, five-week series featuring Ms. Goddard, a highly-regarded public speaker. Her historical portrayal of Rachel Carson was the first in the series.
The portrayal envisioned Ms. Carson in the summer of 1963 as she spoke from the porch of her summer cottage off the coast of Boothbay Harbor in Maine. She loved being close to nature and bought the property in 1953. She commissioned the design and building of the cottage, which she called “Silverledges.”
Although she was weak and suffering from the aftereffects of radiation used to treat her breast cancer, Ms. Carson spoke movingly about her love of nature and her fervent belief that humans, animals, birds, fish and all the fauna of the natural world must learn to live together.
Her life’s work is defined by her classic blockbuster, “Silent Spring,” published in 1961, the book most closely identified with inspiring the environmental movement in the United States and around the world. How did this shy, modest middle-aged woman become a scientific trailblazer?
A Mother’s Love and Guidance
Ms. Carson described her childhood, growing up poor in Springdale, Pa., the youngest of three children. Her mother, Maria, was well educated and inspired in her a love of nature and all living creatures. The family lived on a farm with few neighbors. Her older brother and sister were already attending school during the day. Her mother was her closest companion growing up, nurturing her intellect and keen mind.
Rachel graduated first in her class from high school and received a scholarship to Pennsylvania College for Women. In her sophomore year she switched her major from English to Biology after taking a course with Mary Scott Skinker, the first of several influential mentors. She graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1929 and with Ms. Skinker’s recommendation, was awarded a summer scholarship to study at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., an organization she would come back to again and again for scientific collaboration, inspiration, and collegiality.
Ms. Carson earned an M.A. in Zoology from Johns Hopkins in 1932. Financial obligations to her family prevented her from pursuing a Ph.D.
Beginning Work as a Civil Servant
After several years teaching, Ms. Carson took the Federal Civil Service Exams to qualify for positions as junior wildlife biologist and junior aquatic biologist. She was hired by Elmer Higgins at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, part of the Department of Commerce, in 1935 to fill a part-time position writing radio programs about marine life.
She excelled at it. She had a vast knowledge of marine life and a unique talent for making complex scientific subjects easy to understand. When a full-time position became available several months later, Mr. Higgins made sure she was offered the job.
The year 1935 was a critical one: In addition to working at her new job, she lost her father, and his sudden death made her the sole financial support of her mother, sister and two nieces.
Two years later, in 1937, her sister died of pneumonia at age 39, leaving her daughters, aged 11 and 12 years old, to be raised by Rachel and her mother.
To make ends meet and support her family, Ms. Carson continued to pursue freelance writing about marine life and the natural world. She regularly had articles published in The Baltimore Sun. She had a piece published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1941, the same year she received her first book deal from Simon & Schuster for “Under the Sea-Wind.” Due to the outbreak of World War II, the book was not commercially successful.
Ms. Carson continued working for the government and writing freelance. She even spent a brief period living (1941-1943) in Evanston when her job within the Bureau of Fisheries was transferred to Chicago as part of a departmental reorganization. (Ms. Goddard said Ms. Carson did not care for Evanston and was eager to get back to the East coast.)
Literary Success with “The Sea Around Us”
A major turning point came in 1950 and 51 when Ms. Carson’s manuscript for “The Sea Around Us” was published by Oxford University Press. The book was on the New York Times Best-seller List for 32 weeks, a record at the time, and it garnered many national awards. It was made into a movie of the same name, which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1952. “The Sea Around Us” guaranteed Ms. Carson and her family financial security and allowed her to resign her government position in order to write full time.
Ms. Carson had been aware of and researching DDT since at least 1944. She understood the harm it could cause to wildlife. In 1958 she received a letter from a friend, Olga Owens Huckins. Ms. Huckins had written a letter to the The Boston Herald describing how her yard was filled with dead birds as a result of aerial spraying of DDT to kill mosquitoes, and she had sent Ms. Carson a copy of the published letter. Her friend’s letter ignited Ms. Carson’s passion to document the interconnectedness of chemicals’ impact on all parts of the natural world.
With meticulous documentation and research, Ms. Carson showed how the chemicals used liberally to kill insects also seeped into the food chain and indiscriminately killed animals, birds and fish far beyond the original intent. She fervently believed these chemicals were inaccurately named and should be called ‘biocides’ instead of pesticides.
“Silent Spring, published in 1962, was a cry for help, a plea for mankind to understand the long-term effects before using chemicals, a push for citizens to question their governments and ask “Who speaks, and why?” to better understand the role financial self-interest plays in making decisions. She believes all people are all stewards for this beautiful planet Earth and if people are going to live together, they must learn to “master our appetites” rather than try to master other species.
Ms. Carson was fortunate to see her monumental work published to worldwide acclaim, to testify successfully in front of Congress multiple times, to see President John Kennedy support her conclusions, and to witness the beginning of some governmental oversight of the environment. She died in 1964 and is survived by her grandnephew, Roger, whom she had adopted several years earlier.
The next virtual Levy Lecture featuring Leslie Goddard portraying Queen Elizabeth II will take place at 1 p.m. on May 5. The lectures are free and open to everyone; registration is necessary and available at lscfevanston.org.