Because if you don’t, you’ll miss an excellent two-part article in American Entomologist about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring! (Alas, reprints not available online yet.)

Anelli, Carol M., Christian H. Krupke and Renee Priya Prasad. “Professional Entomology and the 44 Noisy Years Since ‘Silent Spring’. Part 1.” American Entomologist, vol. 52, no. 4 (Winter 2006): pp. 224-235.*

Anelli, Carol M., Christian H. Krupke and Renee Priya Prasad. “Professional Entomology and the 44 Noisy Years Since ‘Silent Spring’. Part 2: Response to Silent Spring.” American Entomologist, vol. 53, no. 1 (Spring 2007): pp. 16-25.

Very interesting papers, and a nice “insider view” of how entomologists reacted to Silent Spring, and how the book influenced changes in society, legislation, and to some extent, the profession. One thing that continues to amaze me is how strong Carson must have had to be to withstand all these public attacks.
What an amazing woman.

At the time of Silent Spring’s publication, there were very few women in entomology, and you can certainly hear some not-too-progressive attitudes toward women in some of the critiques cited in their paper and elsewhere. (When I joined the ESA 20 years later in the early 1980s, the membership was only 3% female.)
Just how hostile was the ESA toward Carson when Silent Spring was published? In a note in the most recent AE (Vol. 53 #2), Carl Schaefer reports an interesting tidbit from the ESA Managing Mditor in 1964:

“A notorious book and its author have never been mentioned by name in the Bulletin or any other publication of the Society. This is an intentional and firm policy, and if we be in error, we are guilty, non-repentant, and unchanging. (Bulletin, March 1964)

Fortunately, the ESA was NOT “non-repentant and unchanging,” and has come to understand that Carson did have a point–even if she didn’t make it in the approved scientific peer-refereed way. Her combination of science and prose has always been problematic, and is part of what current attacks on Carson focus.

I think this paragraph from the first part of the 2007 paper is telling for the “DDT/Carson is Evil” crowd:

“Silent Spring makes frequent reference to 12 pesticides then commonly used. Since then, 8 of these have been banned for use in the United States (DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, Pentachlorophenol, toxaphene, benzene hexachloride/BHC), 2 are severely restricted in use (heptachlor, lindane), and one is considered severely hazardous (parathion). Malathion remains as a registered pesticide. DDT is still used in indoor residual spraying for malaria vector control in many parts of the world (WHO 2004).

Click on the links of some of those compounds that are now banned in the US. Note how many of them we now know are deadly. Carson was ahead of her time, not an alarmist. 92% right is pretty darn good.

The second paper (2007) is a fascinating look at what research entomologists were doing *before* the publication of Silent Spring–and how some of it was extremely similar to the charges Carson later made! It describes the context societally and scientifically into which Carson’s book exploded. I suspect that many of the changes Carson argued for would have eventually been made, simply because pesticide resistance and off target effects were becoming more widely reported.

I will end with this paragraph from the second part of the paper (2007):

“Today, we may be hard pressed to find a knowledgeable entomologist or toxicologist who would argue for a return to the widespread application of broad-spectrum, persistent pesticides.”

—–
*[In case you don’t recognize the name, “Carol Anelli” was formerly “Carol Sheppard,” well known for outstanding writing about historic entomology :) ]

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!

6 Comments

  1. The report in the 2007 paper described in this reading certainly should provide sufficient evidence to exonerate Rachel Carson of the many attacks from the “DDT/Carson is Evil” crowd. I agree with the statement that the “92% right is pretty darn good”. Thank you for making this important information available to your readers.

  2. I was a sophomore in Entomology at Auburn University when “Silent Spring” was published. I was naieve about everything and I remember all the talk among the entomologists about the book. As I recall most of it was negative. Somehow, though, I knew they “doth protest too much”. I recently read the biography of Rachel Carson by Linda Lear and was so moved by the courage it must have taken Carson to finish the book and defend her position while dying of breast cancer.

    I was surprised to find the name of our chairman at that time, F. S. Arant, in her book. I was very curious about what his reaction might have been to “Silent Spring”. I was searching the internet for possible clues when I had the great fortune to find your website.

    An entomologist, a skeptic and a gardener. Wow! I wish we could talk over a nice cold beer.

  3. I am a high school biology teacher that requires advanced students to read Silent Spring. I have some students this year that really think that Carson is a crack pot, cry-baby complainer. I am quoting their weekly summaries. It makes me so sad. I am just trying to get them to see the big picture however they think at the age of 14 they have it all figured out. What will happen to our planet in future generations?
    Any advice on how to better open their eyes and most importantly their minds.

  4. I wish I had an answer for you, Liz.
    I feel very disconnected from my students sometimes. Some of them are so self-centered and focused on “what’s in it for me?”

    I can’t blame them–they are reflecting our culture–but it makes me really depressed.

  5. Liz – I’ve taught biology/environmental science to adults. They can be worse than high schoolers for being self-righteous. I try to emphasize the science and urge students to practice critical thinking – if they make a claim (or a denial for that matter), demand the proof with valid, verifiable, comprehensive, and logically cohesive arguments (most adults have trouble with this). Please don’t give up! We need dedicated teachers like you! There will certainly be some that won’t accept anything other than validation of their own preconcieved, biased ideas, but I am sure that you will reach some. Keep it up!

    Bug Girl – Thanks for establishing this post. I came accross it while trying to refresh my memory on the evolution of DDT resistance after use on cotton fields (studied that in an evolution class). I grew up in the 50’s-60’s (northern Illinois) and found songbirds all too often either dead or still convulsing. My mother told me it was from the spraying for mosquitos. “Silent Spring” was probably the first environmental book I read, and was quite an influence. Thanks again.

    Diane – may I join you with the beer?

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