by Matthew Cobb
Over at The Guardian, Leo Hickman reminds us that 50 years ago today, Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring” was published, with an amazing first print run of 150,000 copies. Carson’s dramatic ecological warning of the effects of insecticides on bird populations played an important part in bringing the problems of population, and the complexity of ecology, into the public domain.
Hickman has asked the great and the good to send him their views of the influence of the book, which makes for pretty interesting reading. He also has some telling and perceptive contemporary reviews, including this one from a personal hero of mine, W. H. Thorpe, one of the early pioneers of animal behaviour, and in particular of the studies of insects.
So, readers of WEIT: what are your memories/knowledge of Silent Spring? At home we had one on our shelves, which my mother must have bought (my father died in 1961). I never spoke to her about why she bought it, and she’s too old to remember now. To my childish mind, it formed part of the catastrophic sci fi literature of the 1950s and 1960s (Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, On the Beach, Canticle for Leibowitz etc), which I read and devoured. The difference was, this was real. And 50 years on, we can see the consequences, at least in the UK, where once-plentiful birds like sparrows and starlings have become rare, at the same time as many insects have declined. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but this link seems pretty compelling.
Rachel Carson herself I am amazed to learn, died in 1964, at the amazingly young age of 57 (she had a heart attack, but had been suffering from breast cancer). She was a marine biologist, who wrote popular books on conservation, and can be seen here doing field work in 1952:
Carson was also a cat person, as this great pic from 24 September 1962 shows. The cute kitteh is called Moppet.
The book – which had an amazing print run of 150,000 copies – is still in print, though bibliophiles might prefer to pick up a first edition, which go for upward of $700. The top price on Abebooks.com (keep away from the website if you want to keep your bank balance) is $5500 for this copy, complete with signed card:
A Sunday newspaper cartoon marked Carson’s passing in a touching way in 1964: