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An Environmental Icon's Unseen Fortitude

Rachel Carson in 1951, 11 years before she published
Rachel Carson in 1951, 11 years before she published "Silent Spring," part of which she wrote in Silver Spring. Events honoring her will be held this weekend. (Courtesy Of The Rachel Carson Council Inc.)

This importance stands in sharp contrast with the humble way that Carson arrived in Washington. In 1935, with a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University, the Pennsylvania native was hired as a government contractor to write scripts for a radio nature show, "Romance Under the Waters." She made $6.50 a day. In 1936, Carson became a full-time science writer, and she stayed with the government for 16 more years. Carson also raised a grand-nephew, Roger Christie, whom she adopted as a son.

These were less cautious times in wildlife management: Government officials were still handing out recipes for eating the animals they studied. Still, in 1945, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting research on a widely used pesticide.

"DDT may have undesirable and even dangerous effects unless its use is properly controlled," said a news release, which Carson helped write.

"It stuck in the back of her mind, apparently," said Mark Madison, a historian for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson's employer for much of her career.

In the late 1950s, after Carson had written mega-selling books about life in the ocean and made enough money to retire from the government, she came back to the subject of DDT.

New studies had shown that the chemical, sprayed broadly to kill mosquitoes and other pests, could hamper the reproduction of birds. She found additional evidence that man-made chemicals were harming fish and other wildlife as well as indications that they could be causing cancer in humans.

Then, in the midst of working on the book, Carson discovered that she had cancer -- tumors that began in her breast and eventually spread through her body.

As she fought the disease, being shuttled to Washington Hospital Center for treatment, Carson had decided she could tell almost no one about her condition.

"She realized even before the book was published that if the chemical industry . . . understood that she had cancer, they would have another potent, personal way to refute what she wrote," said Linda Lear, a George Washington University research professor who wrote a biography of Carson published in 1997.

Lear said Carson wanted people to know that her book -- which she wrote in Silver Spring and at a home in Maine -- was based on sound science, not anger over her illness.

Carson continued to hide her disease after the book was published. Signs of her illness were blamed on arthritis or the flu. When she appeared on "CBS Reports," she wore a dark wig.

"You never saw me look better. Please say that," Carson wrote to a friend, telling her what to say when people inquired about Carson's health, according to a letter quoted by Lear.

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