MSU Celebrates 50 Years of ‘Silent Spring’

By Chelsea Richardson

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been 50 years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. This book has been called one of the signature events in the birth of the environmental movement.

Carson always knew she wanted to be a writer and at age 11 she published her first book. While in college she went against the status quo of “science is too rigorous of a field for women” and changed her major from English to biology in 1928. After receiving her master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, Carson spent 17 years at the U.S. Bureau of Fish and Wildlife Service where after a few years she became editor-in-chief. During this time, she began writing books about the sea, but it wasn’t until years after her resignation from the U.S. Bureau of Fish and Wildlife Service in 1952 that she started writing Silent Spring.

Silent Spring started as an article for a magazine and then grew to a full blown book that took four and a half years to write.

In 1962, Silent Spring opened the world’s eyes to the potential dangers of pesticide use. People started to look critically at what was happening around them and direct effects of the book resulted in increased scientific study of the effects of pesticides. Regulatory laws were enacted, dissenters were empowered, and practices were changed. DDT insecticide was banned in 1972, 10 years after Silent Spring was published.

The Michigan State University Museum revisits the publication of this landmark book, credited with launching the modern environmental movement. “Echoes of Silent Spring: 50 Years of Environmental Awareness” opened in the Heritage Gallery on May 29.

Most readers and observers of Silent Spring say that the outcomes of the book have been positive, while others say that the impacts have been negative. The MSU museum would like to invite people to come to the exhibit, read the book and make their own judgments.

Research in Silent Spring is close to home at Michigan State. The major case study observing birds that experienced tremors and then death after consuming large amounts of the pesticide DDT as it accumulated in soil, and consequently, in their food source, earthworms, took place on MSU’s campus.  Part of the exhibit showcases ongoing correspondence between Carson and MSU ornithologist George Wallace, whose papers are now part of the Museum’s collections.

Wallace and his students documented the dying birds on MSU’s campus. They collected birds from MSU and they were either dead or dying from tremors in the late 1950s. These scientists carried out tests on many of the birds’ carcasses, and in most cases found elevated levels of the pesticide DDT. This is one of the many studies that Carson uses in her book.

The exhibit runs through December 30 at the MSU Museum. Visit the Museum website for more information and to experience a virtual exhibition.

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