Earth Day, AAUW, and Rachel Carson: An Archives Discovery
While diligently working in a box filled with scattered correspondence, newspaper articles, and other materials, AAUW Archives Corps member Caroline Pickens stumbled upon a letter. It could have ended up as one of many, but this one caught her keen eye. Written in beautiful cursive, the letter was written to Mary Boyette, AAUW public information officer, from none other than marine biologist and author Rachel Carson.
Carson, about to receive the AAUW Achievement Award, was writing to Boyette on June 12, 1956. In the four-page, handwritten letter, Carson explains what she will do with the award money, that it will “further the studies I already have underway as a basis for a new book.” She also states that her acceptance speech for the award will be on the subject of “new frontiers in biology.”
It is fascinating to read Carson’s eloquently written letter — but even more so when the piece of correspondence is placed within the chronology of her life’s work. The “new book” she was speaking of turned out to be 1962’s Silent Spring. For those unfamiliar, Silent Spring exposed the misuse of pesticides and linked the aerial spraying of DDT to the decline in bird populations. It was a pioneering work that is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement.
An instant success, Silent Spring was serialized in the New Yorker, spent 31 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and was published in 24 countries. Not surprisingly, Carson suffered intense backlash from corporate interests and chemical companies. She was called a fanatic, hysterical, even a communist! She was ridiculed and threatened with lawsuits. Of course, since then, many studies have confirmed Carson’s theories. And one year after the book’s publication, President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee issued a report that supported Carson’s claims. Her legacy lives on in today’s environmental movement and in noteworthy events such as the establishment of Earth Day in 1970 and the eventual ban on DDT in 1972.
It isn’t every day that we have a find as big as this one in the AAUW archives. Big discoveries bring excitement and make the sometimes tedious work of processing and cataloging archives all the more worth it. But many smaller yet important discoveries are made every day and also lead to an increased understanding of our history. That’s why it is so important that this work continue. I think Rachel Carson would agree; we are never done uncovering hidden information, and we always need to reach for “new frontiers,” wherever they may be. Carson’s was in biology; mine is in history. Where is yours?
So on Monday, what are you doing for Earth Day? Cleaning up your local park? Planting your own garden? Hanging out your laundry? Whatever you do, take a moment to thank Rachel Carson and her contributions to a safer, cleaner planet. And don’t forget to also thank AAUW for believing in and supporting her long before there ever was an Earth Day.
Learn more at Our History. This online collection of milestones tells the story of AAUW’s important role in women’s history.