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Robert Musil's "Rachel Carson and Her Sisters"

By Lawrence Wittner - Posted on 23 April 2014

Despite the central role of women in environmental activism, surprisingly little is known about them.  Furthermore, what is known is usually limited to the work of Rachel Carson, whose powerful call to action, Silent Spring (1962), is widely credited with jump-starting the modern environmental movement.  Fortunately, Robert Musil’s new book, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters (Rutgers University Press, 2014), remedies this situation.

Musil notes that, as the nineteenth century progressed, increasing numbers of American women obtained better education and the ability to travel, write, and take action.  Hiking and botanizing, they observed the encroachment of manufacturing and urban life on the countryside.  Eventually, they produced a flood of books, magazine articles, journals, and children’s stories about nature.

Susan Fenimore Cooper was particularly influential.  Her Rural Hours (1850), a best-selling environmental book, underwent four decades of popular publication and revision, in the United States and overseas.  Fluent in three languages, Cooper moved in the highest circles of intellectuals, scientists, and naturalists.

Other key activists included Martha Maxwell (who began the development of natural history museums); Graceanna Lewis (a popular ornithologist and painter); Ada Botsford Comstock (who popularized nature study); Florence Merriam Bailey (the most eminent female naturalist writer and organizer of her time); Olive Thorne Miller (a children’s author and environmental educator); and Mary Hunter Austin (a well-known writer about nature and water resources).

Their activism was later supplemented by Ellen Swallow Richards, who first introduced the concept of ecology to the United States.  Richards launched associations, founded disciplines, and pioneered health and environmental studies.  Performing brilliantly in her field of chemistry, she became, Musil observes, “the founder of the American consumer, nutrition, health, and right-to-know movements.”  In addition, Richards authored numerous books, organized the scientific examination of food, and helped the Massachusetts legislature pass the nation’s first pure food laws.  She completed the most comprehensive water quality survey in the nation, which sparked her state’s first water quality laws and sewage treatment, and led the campaign to expose dangerous health conditions in Boston’s schools, thus stirring nationwide school reforms.

Alice Hamilton, “the founder of occupational and environmental medicine in the United States,” was trained as a doctor.  Employed at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University, she began to focus on occupational and environmental disease.  In 1908, the Governor of Illinois appointed her as the chief medical investigator of a nine-member commission to study industrial disease in the state.  Discovering dramatic evidence of lead poisoning, she was invited by the U.S. Commissioner of Labor to conduct a nationwide study of the lead industry.  Consequently, new laws regulating lead were passed in Illinois and other states.  After World War I, when Hamilton joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School, she became the leading American specialist on diseases caused by exposure to industrial pollutants.

Many women activists experienced substantial gender discrimination, and were passed over for appointments or barred from academic and other institutions.  Richards was refused entry to MIT’s doctoral program.  Offered a position at Johns Hopkins, Anna Baetjer was informed that it was contingent on promising not to marry.  Hamilton was told, when hired at Harvard, that she would not be allowed to sit on the platform with male faculty at commencement.

Musil shows that, although Carson herself worked well with men, her deepest influences and relationships, her love of nature and science, and her influential contacts came from women.  Employed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she wrote numerous popular books with environmental themes.  Attaining financial security, she left government service and worked closely with environmental activists in planning, researching, writing, and promoting Silent Spring, a book that achieved their goals of alerting the public to the dangers of pesticides and spurring government reform.  Deeply committed to environmentalism, she wrote Silent Spring, appeared on television, and testified before Congress while dying of breast cancer.

After Carson’s death, women’s leadership in the environmental movement continued, led by such activists as Terry Tempest Williams, Sandra Steingraber, Devra Davis, and Theo Colborn.

Musil emphasizes the strong corporate resistance to environmental safety.  Although lead is a neurotoxin that impairs mental performance, the National Lead Company fought against product labelling and bans, brought lawsuits, and, later, blamed children and their families when children consumed lead paint chips.  The DuPont Corporation squelched research showing the connection between the chemicals in its factories and cancer.  The auto corporations battled against the Clean Air Act of 1970.  There was also a sharp struggle over leaded gasoline, which had been an issue since the 1920s, when Standard Oil kept industrial fatalities secret.  The Electric Power Research Institute (the industry group representing coal-fired utilities) hired researchers to challenge evidence about the hazards of burning coal.  Moreover, industry fought fiercely―and successfully―attempts to restrict, remove, or ban cancer-causing, arsenic-treated wood used for children’s playgrounds, outdoor decks, and picnic tables.

Hostile corporations also savagely assailed leading environmentalists.  As Musil notes, Carson faced an attack campaign orchestrated by the Manufacturing Chemists Association and its corporate allies like DuPont, Monsanto, and Dow.  Publishers were threatened with lawsuits.  Public forums were created in which doctors and scientists condemned Carson.  Monsanto even published a parody of her work.  Carson was “denounced by critics as a spinster, unscientific, a pro-communist, and more.”

Musil concludes that “those who pollute and plunder have huge resources at their command.  They challenge serious science” and “block every reasonable effort to build a better, healthier environment for our children and generations yet to come.”  Nevertheless, “their sway is slowly, steadily, being reduced.”  Americans “can draw inspiration and leadership” from the American women who “have brought us thus far,” and “we can start now down the path that they have set before us.”

People who want to learn more about this path can turn to Rachel Carson and Her Sisters for a richly detailed, documented, and eloquent history―a ground-breaking account of undaunted American women, determined to prevent environmental catastrophe.

Lawrence Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

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