Confronting Monsanto a Half-Century Ago: New Rachel Carson Documentary Honors Author of the Environmental Classic, 'Silent Spring'

Rachel Carson, the visionary biologist and author of the environmental classic Silent Spring is the subject of a new American Experience documentary on PBS. Featuring the voice of Mary-Louise Parker as Carson, the film draws from Carson’s own writings and letters to examine both her public and private life. 

Carson was born in rural Pennsylvania in 1907. She studied biology at the Pennsylvania College for Women and later Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. After working as an information specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson became a full-time nature writer.

After writing several books on the world's oceans, Carson authored Silent Spring in 1962, a brilliant critique of U.S. government agencies' widespread use of chemical pesticides. The bestseller would become instrumental in banning DDT and cementing Carson's role as a pioneer of environmental science.

"Since the mid-1940s, over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as 'pests'; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names," Carson wrote. "Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?"

Carson's new book quickly became a hot topic on Capitol Hill. After assembling a Science Advisory Committee, President John Kennedy was asked by a reporter in a 1962 press conference if he had instructed “the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at [the use of pesticides]."

President Kennedy told him the investigation was underway, adding, "I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.” 

"You can only imagine how worried the people who made these pesticides were," William Sounder, Rachel Carson's biographer noted. "When President Kennedy said 'We're going to look into this, we're going to reach into the private sector and see if we need to regulate these products in a different way.' That was a threat."

“In the '60s, chemicals provided solutions to complex, often devastating challenges like famine and disease," explained Mark Samels, the executive producer of American Experience. "Carson was the first person to point out there’s a price to be paid for that world. She guided us toward an understanding of the interrelatedness of nature, and challenged us to think about our impact on the world around us. And that is certainly something that resonates as strongly today as it did 50 years ago.”

American Experience: "Rachel Carson" premieres Tuesday, January 24 at 8pm ET on PBS.
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