Monday, May 25, 2009

Alternative career profile: Rachel Carson, scientist and writer

I thought it would be fun to start posting profiles of people in alternative careers. Recently, I ran across a very interesting such profile in the publication, "Science Editor", the monthly journal of the Council of Science Editors (I'm a member). April’s issue had an eye-opening story about Rachel Carson, the environmental activist best known for her book, “Silent Spring.”

I admit that I’ve never read “Silent Spring” or any of her other books. Actually, I know almost nothing of Carson other than that she was a famous environmental activist best known for “Silent Spring.” But the article I read makes it clear that Rachel Carson was a remarkable person with a remarkable career path and life. And it brought home to me (yet again) that career paths are often unpredictable, that they turn and twist in unexpected ways, and that long-held dreams can blossom late in unlooked-for spaces.

Adapted from “Rachel Carson, Science Editor” by Olga Kuchment. Science Editor (April 2009) Vol 32: 39-42. (Too bad there’s no online access to the journal!)

Rachel Carter was born in a rural setting in 1907. She started writing at an early age, and early on she dreamed of becoming a professional writer. But she was introduced to zoology at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) and fell in love with the subject. She switched her major from English to zoology and decided to become a scientist. At the time she “thought she would have to give up writing.” (Kuchment, 2009).

She earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University and tried to continue for a Ph.D. But her family was poor, the Great Depression hit, and she was unable to afford the tuition to continue her training. (Hmmm, seems you actually had to pay for a science Ph.D. in those days?) Rachel Carson became the main economic support for her widowed mother, sister, and nieces. She took a job at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, where she wrote scripts for a radio program on marine biology. The radio scripts jump-started her writing career; she reworked the scripts into articles that were published in the Baltimore Sun. On the urging of her boss, she reworked one of her government assignments into an article that was published in The Atlantic. She secured a book deal and wrote her first book “Under the Sea Wind.”

Her first book was not a commercial success, and she stayed on as a scientific writer/editor with the government for many years, eventually rising to the position of editor-in-chief of the publishing program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Kuchment’s article in the Science Editor quotes interviews from admiring colleagues who praised Carson as both an editor/scientist and person. Carson continued to work on personal writing projects in her spare time, and eventually hit commercial success with “The Sea Around Us.” She then retired from her civil service job and worked full-time on her own writing projects. “Silent Spring” was her last book.

I love this story. A dream deferred, put aside—the early dream of being a professional writer. A new dream and its loss—what a bitter pill it must have been to not be able to finish her Ph.D.! But then the marrying of interests—her initial job title with the government was “junior aquatic biologist”; she went out into the field and interacted with scientists; it seems that one could still call her a scientist, as well as a writer/editor. And then, at the age of 45, the realization of her dream to work full-time as a creative writer pursuing her own interests. Interests that sprang directly from her training and love for science.

**Note: this was cross-posted from my personal blog.

1 comment:

Phiala said...

Rachel Carson is one of my heroes. There's a very good short film on her, "A Sense of Wonder", and a very long biography by Linda Lear (author of a biography of Beatrix Potter, another of my science heroes). "The Sea Around Us" was one of my favorite books as a child.

A couple years ago I spent some time in the archives of my undergrad institution, trying to locate research data from an old project started by my now-deceased undergrad mentor, Bill Niering. I didn't find the data I sought, but I did find the letter from Rachel Carson asking him for information on pesticide use in Connecticut, for use in the book she was then working on.