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Rachel Carson: A Legacy of Conservation and Sustainability


The impact of U.S. environmental policy is well documented. As a result, my monthly column shifts from a public policy focus to the role of an individual public servant: Rachel Carson. In his book, Public Service and Democracy: Ethical Imperatives for the 21st Century (1998), author Louis Gawthrop, argues that the spirit of democracy must be linked to the common good. For Gawthrop, an individual in public service achieves the common good by becoming an agent of change, embracing a willingness to take risks and sustaining loyalty to a cause. Equally important, a public servant must be committed to the democratic character or common good. In his book, he gives the example of Dorothea Lange and Rexford Guy Tugwell who championed the federal Resettlement Administration (RA) and documented the devastating effects of poverty during the Great Depression. In the same vein, what Tugwell and Lange accomplished for the RA, Rachel Carson achieved for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and the environment. Her controversial book, Silent Spring (1962), spearheaded the modern environmental movement. It is in this same spirit of democracy that Rachel Carson is selected as one of the top influential public servants and an agent of change. Her legacy continues to embrace the common good, the modern environmental movement and a sustainable world.



Rachel Carson was born in the rural community of Springdale, PA in 1907. She grew up on a small farm outside Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Rachel loved nature, was an avid writer and published her first story at age 11. She graduated magna cum laude in 1929 with a bachelor’s degree in biology at the Pennsylvania College for Women (known today as Chatham University, which is home to the Rachel Carson Institute, School of Sustainability and the Environment). In 1932, she earned a master’s degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University. Although Ms. Carson intended to pursue a doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University, her plans were altered due to personal commitments. Her sister died and her mother, a widow, needed Rachel to financially support the family. (Linda Lear. 1998. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature). However, this challenge did not derail Carson’s commitment to nature and the environment. She was a prolific writer and focused her energies on the environment as a public servant.


Public Service

Ms. Carson worked as a public servant for 15 years in the federal government. In 1935, Carson began writing radio scripts for the Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). In 1936 she was promoted to Junior Aquatic Biologist for the Bureau of Fisheries, U.S. Department of Commerce. Ms. Carson was a trailblazer as she was the second female to be hired in a professional position by the Bureau of Fisheries (Linda Lear. 1998. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature). Later she became a staff biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She served as a scientist and editor for 15 years. Ms. Carson resigned from federal service in 1951 to focus on writing. Carson’s contributions to the Fish and Wildlife Service may be viewed online.



Ms. Carson was a prolific writer and marine biologist. She published a trilogy on the ocean which included: 1) Under the Sea-wind (1941); 2) The Sea Around Us (1951), which won a U.S. National Book award in 1952; and 3) The Edge of the Sea (1955). Her 1950s magazine article, Help Your Child to Wonder has since been published as a book, The Sense of Wonder. She also wrote articles for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, Colliers and Atlantic Monthly magazine. Carson is best known for her book Silent Spring (1962), which is credited for launching the modern environmental movement. The book, which documented the detrimental effects of pesticides, led to the passage of the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act of 1972 (Pub L. 92-516), which banned DDT for agricultural use. Carson’s work ignited a grassroots movement which resulted in the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and key pieces of environmental legislation to protect our air and water. Her publications, advocacy and Congressional testimony had a profound impact on conservation and environmental sustainability. Since the beginning of the modern environmental movement, which was spearheaded by Ms. Carson, more than 20 pieces of federal legislation have been implemented to protect and sustain our environment including the Clean Air Act of 1970, Clean Water Act of 1972, Noise Control Act of 1972, Endangered Species Act of 1973, Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1986, CERCLA/Superfund of 1980, Superfund Amendments and Re-authorization Act of 1986, Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Energy Policy Act of 1992 and the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993. Her publications, advocacy and Congressional testimony had a profound impact on conservation and environmental sustainability.



In addition to being an established author and scientist, Ms. Carson received numerous awards including: The National Audubon Society Medal, induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Albert Schweitzer Award from the Animal Welfare Institute, Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Henry Grier Bryant Gold Medal and the New York Zoological Society Gold Medal. Posthumously, Ms. Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter.



Last year, 2012, celebrated the 50th anniversary printing of Carson’s book Silent Spring. Ms. Carson epitomizes what it means to be a commendable public servant and to work for the common good. She was passionate, committed and loyal. Ms. Carson was a moral and ethical public servant who worked tirelessly as an advocate, writer, biologist, conservationist and ecologist to protect and promote our environment. She was a whistle blower and exposed the chemical companies for the damage caused by pesticides. And in the process, she created the modern environmental movement. Although Ms. Carson’s life was cut short (she passed away at the age of 56), she left a legacy that embraces the democratic spirit, human life and our ecosystems. As we contemplate the next steps in ensuring a sustainable and environmentally friendly world, let us celebrate Ms. Carson’s legacy by being reminded of one of her famous quotes: “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery – not over nature but of ourselves.”


Author: Lorenda Naylor; PhD, MPH, MPA; is an associate professor in the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.  

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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