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Email Interview with Dr.

Robert Musil- February 1st, 2015

Interviewer: What made Rachel Carson so controversial in the
scientific world?
Musil: There are several reasons Rachel Carson was considered
controversial when her work on the dangers of pesticides, such as
DDT, came out in 1962. The main opposition and, hence,
controversy, was from the manufacturers of such chemicals such as
the Velsicol Corporation of Michigan which threatened lawsuits if
she went ahead with publication, the DuPont corporation, the
American Chemical Society, and some government and corporateaffiliated scientists who believed in the efficacy of DDT and whose
reputations were made by supporting it. DDT and other pesticides
were widely used, quite profitable, and the effects on human health
somewhat difficult and complicated to establish.
Carson was also attacked because she was a woman and called a
spinster, and other sexist slurs. She also had not been able to finish
her Ph.D in biology from Johns Hopkins University during the
Depression (she had a Masters degree and also studied at the Woods
Hole Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod) for financial reasons,
family obligations, and the difficulty of doing her work while
holding and commuting to three part-time jobs as an adjunct
professor and research assistant. There were also few academic job
opening at that time and virtually none for women. So she found a
job as a government scientist and writer for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service. But she was attacked for lack of academic
credentials and because she was an extremely popular and bestselling nature author.
Carson was also attacked because her work and thesis were new,
cutting-edge, and had been ignored by many mainstream scientists.
That is she was among the first to write widely about the connection
between environmental exposures and the onset of cancer and other
illnesses. Almost all scientists and writers who first discover or

make popular new scientific findings or theories that challenge

traditional orthodoxy are attacked.
Interviewer: Before Rachel Carson, what was the role of DDT in
the American household?
DDT and other pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides were widely
used in American households after WW II as many Americans
moved for the first time to the suburbs and their own homes. The
popularity of such use was widely encouraged by manufacturers
who wished to maintain the huge sales they had made during the
war to use DDT, for example, to prevent typhus and malaria among
American GIs and Marines in Italy and the Pacific. But the worst
problem before Silent Spring was widespread spraying of DDT and
other pesticides from airplanes and by trucks throughout entire
neighborhoods and regions to eliminate mosquitoes, gypsy moths,
fire ants, and more. Thus large numbers of Americans and wildlife
were needlessly exposed.
Interviewer: How did Rachel Carson impact the environmental
movement? Did it begin because of her work?
Musil: Rachel Carson inspired the environmental movement, the
Kennedy Administration, and the public with the beauty of her
writing and the meticulous attention to detail and scientific research
that undergirded her work. She also inspired organizations and
individuals in the movement by her bravery under attack, her steady
demeanor, and her courage in writing and testifying while dying of
breast cancer. A number of major organizations gave her awards
including the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the
Audubon Society, Sierra Club and others.
Rachel Carson did not begin the environmental movement as I show
at some length in my book, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters:
Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped Americas Environment
(Rutgers University Press, 2014). Women warned about the
destruction of birds, wrote popular books about why and how to

protect them, and were active in national environmental campaigns

for 2-3 generations before Carson. Others also worked on the
dangers of chemicals to human health and on scientific
environmental problems like air pollution, cancer from certain
exposures, and more. When Carson wrote she worked with and
relied on the support and information from many environmental
What Carson did that was new and unique was to combine
effectively the dangers to wildlife and humans from environmental
pollution and degradation and to reach a huge audience with bestselling books. Thus she helped move the environment movement
(then mainly known as the conservation movement) to new, more
popular heights and to have groups focus on threats to people as
well as animals and ecosystems.
Interviewer: Would the impacts of Rachel Carsons work have been
different had she been a male scientist?
Musil: Perhaps. There were a number of colleagues and friends of
Rachels who warned about DDT and more such as Clarence
Cottam, Roger Tory Peterson, and others. They were not as
controversial or attacked in the same way. But they were not as
visible and known as the author of the most important and popular
book against pesticides. Once in the limelight, Carsons enemies
used anything they could to try to attack and discredit her, including
Interviewer: What was the impact of President Kennedys report on
Musil: JFKs report was stimulated in part by Carsons book as he
indicated in a press conference. But when it was released and
concluded that pesticides were harmful to human health and being
used excessively, she was vindicated. Major TV reports, such as
CBS Reports with Eric Sevareid, specifically made that point and
further ensured Carsons influence and reputation.

Interviewer: Today, how are environmentalist groups continuing

Rachel Carson's legacy?
Musil: In many ways. Most directly, many groups work to get rid of
pesticides and other harmful and toxic substances. These include the
Rachel Carson Council, the Environmental Working Group,
Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others. But since Rachel
saw issues as connected and was aware early on of problems like
global warming, nuclear weapons, power and wastes and
overpopulation, groups that tackle these issues carry on her legacy,
too. Some examples include the Natural Resources Defense Council,
the Environmental Defense Fund, and many others.
Interviewer: How was Carson considered a leader in this
environmental movement?
Musil: Rachel was given awards many times by major
environmental groups at the time like the Audubon Society,
Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and so on. She was
good friends with the leaders of many groups who looked to her
leadership, among them David Brower, then head of the Sierra Club.
But Rachel was a leader in policy and government, too, working
closely with the Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy, Stuart
Udall, and on a number of Kennedy Administration Task Forces and
groups. Because she was a scientist and a very popular author she
had wide respect and was better known than other leaders.