In 1962, the idea of progress, of modern man striding step by inevitable step up the staircase of history, was virtually unchallenged in the United States.
One slim volume changed all that. It was written in Maryland by a woman born 100 years ago this year.
Rachel Carson would live for only 18 months after Silent Spring was published. But that was long enough for her to get an idea that she had changed the world.
"Silent Spring was a polemic in the best sense. It was meant to be a prophecy," says Carson's biographer Linda Lear. "A prophecy is something that is outside our narrative of time, that suddenly tells us if he don't wake up, that whole narrative will be blown to bits.
"That's what Carson was doing, writing apocalyptic literature," she says. "It took its direct aim from the Old Testament prophets, warning that if you don't change your ways, oh, Israel, then you are going to get it."
Before Silent Spring, airplanes would fly over wide swaths of land, dropping poisons meant to kill pests on houses and fields alike. In seaside communities, mosquito trucks would make their daily rounds, pumping out clouds of the pesticide DDT as children romped on nearby lawns.
No one thought a thing of it. These were chemicals, and chemistry was a marvelous thing. And they were being dispensed by governmental authorities who knew what was best for us. DDT was a wonderful invention, responsible for the elimination of malaria in this country.
"The idea of modern progress transforming the world for the better was part of the ethos of the Western world," says Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
In Europe especially, that idea had been battered, first by World War I, then by the Holocaust. But many of the objections were philosophical, not popular. And in the United States, which had been shielded from the worst of the blows suffered by Europe during the two world wars. few questioned the benefits of technological and scientific progress in the early '60s.
"I think it was Rachel Carson who first brought that kind of perception of doubting the benefits of modern progress to a broader context," Nelson says. "She made people realize that maybe if there was progress, there might also be a downside to it.
"We see that now with global warming. On the one hand, the use of energy is what makes life what it is today. On the other hand, there are potential, and real, problems with that usage," he says. "Carson was pointing that out with respect to chemicals and pesticides which were a major part of the whole modern project.
"Chemists could do, and did do, miraculous things," Nelson says. "What she wrote led in some ways to a loss of faith in scientific experts."
And what gave Silent Spring its credibilty was that not only was Carson a celebrated writer, she was just such a scientific expert. Born in Pennsylvania on May 27, 1907, she came to Maryland in 1929 to attend graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University after graduating from Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College.
"It was the thick of the Depression," says Lear, whose biography, Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature, was published in 1997. "Things were very hard. And she was one of the very few women in the cohort of students at Hopkins."
Carson first lived on the Hopkins campus, then in a house in Stemmer's Run, northeast of Baltimore, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. Her scholarship money and a variety of jobs - including free-lance work for The Sun - supported her extended family, including at various times her mother and father (who died while she was at Hopkins), a brother and a sister and some nieces and nephews.
"She was a woman who knew very early in life, certainly by the time she went to college, that she had a mission," Lear says. "She knew she was not just to lead an ordinary life."
Lear, who maintains the Web site www.rachelcarson.org, says that Carson realized she had a gift for writing as well as an interest in science. She left Hopkins with a master's degree in marine biology but would certainly have gone for her doctorate if not for the financial straits of those Depression years.
"She never really thought seriously about marriage," Lear says of Carson. "She realized that if she was married, she would not be able to write. In those days, that was a realistic appraisal."
Carson moved to the area around the University of Maryland in College Park, where she taught in what was then the zoology department. She also taught summer school at Hopkins. Eventually she got work writing radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, rising to editor-in-chief of all publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Her first love was the ocean. She received excellent reviews for her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941, but any possibility of significant sales ended when World War II began.
"That is regarded as perhaps her best book, both from a literary and purely scientific viewpoint," Lear says. "It takes us into a world where there are no humans, a purely aquatic world. Birds and fish and the ocean and a few assorted eels are the main characters."
The sales of her next book, The Sea Around Us - a study of the ocean published in 1951 - allowed Carson to become a full-time writer, building a house in White Oak in Montgomery County and buying a cottage in Maine where she spent her summers.
"The Sea Around Us made her an international star," Lear says. "It is crucial to understand that had Carson not become internationally renowned with those two books, Silent Spring would never have had the impact that it did.
"By the time Silent Spring came out in 1962, she was the most trusted voice in public science," Lear says.
Though it is the work that really put Carson in the history books, Silent Spring is not considered her best work.
"Her earlier books were written in really quite beautiful prose," says Grace Brush, a professor in the department of geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins. "I was looking at Silent Spring and it is really - much more than I remembered it - very much a list of all these things that were being used in the environment, not just DDT but chlordane and a whole lot of other things.
"It had a huge influence," she says. "I know it did on me."
The book hit like a bombshell, shattering the illusion that all these poisons spewed into the air and onto the plants were doing nothing but good.
"One thing I remember very very clearly is the backlash from the chemical companies," Brush says.
It was huge. The chemical lobby denigrated Carson and said that if her ideas were followed, plagues of locusts and other pests would soon be chomping their way through our agriculture.
Interestingly, Lear notes that many of Carson's points had been made in a book published earlier that year called Our Synthetic Environment. It was by Lewis Herber, a pen name for Murray Bookchin.
"I interviewed Bookchin by telephone in 1994 and he made the comment that he never understood the popularity of Carson's book when his had made the same claims and argument," Lear says.
The difference was that he had neither Carson's prose style nor her reputation.
"Her credibility with the public was hugely important because of what she didn't have, a Ph.D.," Lear says. "She had no institutional support to stand on. And she's a woman. With those things against her, her public credibility was immensely important."
In Silent Spring, that credibility was backed up by solid science that withstood the attacks of her well-armed critics.
Brush says Carson's lack of top academic credentials led to some skepticism among university faculty.
"A number of people in the academic world seemed to sort of downplay this book," she says. "They would say it didn't really contain any data. Actually it did. She had a lot of information and made a very, very convincing case."
Carson's truly revolutionary idea probably arose from her interest in the sea, which she had written about as a single, interconnected organism. She applied that thinking to the rest of the world in Silent Spring, an approach at odds with that of the chemical companies that simply saw a problem - mosquitoes - and a solution - DDT - with no thought of any further consequences.
"She was able to show a linkage between these materials that were being used and all sorts of different organisms," Brush says. "That was the beginning of thinking really of an ecological system, of all things linked together.
"That made a really big impression, though maybe I didn't realize it at the time," she says.
Though she wrote of many compounds, it was the very popular DDT that got the most attention. Carson linked its usage directly to the decline in the bird populations, specifically bald eagles and ospreys, as the residue from DDT weakened the shells of their eggs.
Before her death on April 14, 1964, of a heart attack related to her battle with breast cancer, Carson had testified before Congress on the issue and seen President Kennedy appoint scientific advisers to examine the issue. Eventually, DDT was banned and, as she predicted, the osprey and the eagle populations soured.
Silent Spring is given almost universal credit for midwifing the birth of the modern ecological movement.
David Inouye, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, says that the legacy of that book lives on, at least in his conservation biology course, where he always mentions Carson when talking about the effects of pesticides and other chemicals put into the enviroment.
"It is still our legacy in that you and I and everyone else have the chemical residues from DDT and other pesticides in our bodies," Inouye says. "They are still out there in the food chain. And in some parts of the world, DDT is still being used and those crops are imported to the United States."
Inouye says it may well be that few of today's students arrive on the campus where Carson once taught knowing how important Rachel Carson was.
"But by the time they get out of my class they do," he says.
Rachel Carson Sources
Here is a sampling of sources for more information about Rachel Carson and her work:
www.RachelCarson.org: A Web site put together by her biographer, Linda Lear
www.rachelcarsonhomestead.org: A Web site devoted to Carson's Pennsylvania childhood home
www.fws.gov/northeast/rachelcarson: A Web site about a coastal Maine federal wildlife refuge named for Carson and located near her summer cottage
www.fws.gov/rachelcarson/: A biographical Web site put together by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
BOOKS by Carson
Under the Sea-Wind. New York, Oxford University Press (1941)
The Sea Around Us. New York, Oxford University Press (1951)
The Edge of the Sea. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company (1955)
Silent Spring. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company (2002)
The Sense of Wonder. (Photographs by Charles Pratt) New York, Harper & Row (posthumous, 1965)
BOOKS about Carson
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear. Henry Holt & Co., 1997.
Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work, by Paul Brooks. Sierra Books, 1998.
Up Close: Rachel Carson, by Ellen Levine. Viking Juvenile (ages 9-12) $15.99 hardcover 2007
Rachel Carson: Pioneer of Ecology, by Kathleen V. Kudlinski. Illustrated by Ted Lewin. Puffin Book ages 7-11 $4.99 paperback 1988