During the seventeen years she worked in the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel Carson learned about the problems of pesticides. Undaunted by the chemical companies' hostility and by the public's high enthusiasm for pesticides, she wrote a book called Silent Spring, which caused a major shift in public consciousness about the environment.
Called a 'savior of mankind' because of its efficacy in
controlling insect-born diseases in World War II, DDT was the
most widely used of the new chemical insecticides. By stopping
the transmittal of typhus through fleas, DDT saved millions of
lives during the war. Because of this use of DDT, World War II
was the first war in which more people died as a result of
casualties than of disease. After the war, there was massive
civilian use of this "miracle" substance.
An organic, synthetic insecticide of the chlorinated
hydrocarbon group, DDT was popular due to its low cost, high
availability, potency, and apparent safety. Most of the DDT
sold to the World Health Organization cost less than twenty-two
cents per pound. After the war, DDT production skyrocketed.
Between 1945 and 1955, production increased from 125 million
pounds to 600 million pounds. Because DDT remained in its toxic
state for years, farmers could apply the pesticide occasionally
yet enjoy its protection for years. The government supported
use of DDT; the chemical industry advocated it aggressively.
The Public Health Department held demonstrations of DDT's
efficacy and safety. As a result of this positive publicity,
public places and private backyards were also sprayed.
With the discovery of the housefly's immunity to DDT,
serious doubts arose about DDT. As early as 1946, Elmer Higgins
and Clarence Cottam wrote about the threat of DDT to mammals,
birds, and fish in the Journal of Economic
Entomology. It was observed that DDT tended to
accumulate in the fatty tissues of wildlife. In 1958, Roy
Barker of the Illinois Natural History Survey at Urbana
published a warning describing how robins were poisoned by
eating earthworms that had ingested DDT in leaves under elms
sprayed for control of Dutch elm disease. Roland C. Clement, a
former vice-president of the National Audubon Society,
described the response to Barker's survey as being:
...denied or disregarded by officialdom largely because those
in responsibility did not regard such environmental sequelae
of direct concern to them, and considered birds as 'things'
of minor consequence instead of recognizing them for what
they are, sensitive and responsive indices to the health and
quality of the total environment, of which man too is a
Although Congress started an annual census of fish killed by
various pollutants, most people did not know about these
disturbing facts. Very few of the facts appeared in newspapers
and magazines. The general public, overwhelmed by the praise of
pesticides, only knew about the quick, easy benefits.