Lecture commemorates legacies of female environmentalists

By Irene Park, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 29, 2014

Since the 1962 publication of her book “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson has been considered one of history’s most prominent female environmentalists. But Dr. Robert Musil, president of the Rachel Carson Council, aimed to tell a more inclusive story through his book “Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment” at a lecture Monday

Musil detailed the contents of his book published earlier this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Carson’s death. The work examines other women who also contributed to the beginnings of the environmental movement and how they complemented Carson’s efforts.

Carson’s “Silent Spring” described the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and human health. When it was published, the book played a major role in raising the general public’s awareness of environmental concerns, including the popular chemical DDT. Carson is seen as an environmental pioneer who singlehandedly catalyzed the modern environmental movement. Regarding the effect of “Silent Spring” on today’s society, the Natural Resources Defense Council states that the book led to the birth of environmentalism.

During his lecture, Musil said uncovering the other female figures in the environmental movement who are not as popularized as Carson was the main motivation for writing his book.

“I began to ask myself, as in other areas of history, Rachel Carson cannot be alone and the only main woman,” Musil said. “I wanted to challenge the myth that she was a lone genius.”

Some of the prominent female figures who are featured in Musil’s book include Shirley Briggs, who collaborated with Carson on multiple projects before “Silent Spring” and became the first executive director of the Rachel Carson Council; Susan Fenimore Cooper, the first female nature writer and Dr. Alice Hamilton, a University alum who devoted her life to raising awareness of occupational safety and health issues and who pioneered the field of toxicology.

Musil’s book also discusses how the environmental movement existed before Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” asserting that the public perception of Carson’s book as the birth of the environmental movement is inaccurate.

“(Carson) worked with a close network of friends to call attention to the problem that has been around for years,” Musil said. “So the idea that (‘Silent Spring’) started the movement is rather far from the truth.”

Though his book brings many additional female figures into the spotlight, Musil did not undermine Carson’s works or legacies.

“(Carson) combined literature, science, humanities, and health sciences in ways that are quite extraordinary,” said Musil. “She was the first, the most successful, and the most popular environmentalist to link nature with human health.”