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Rachel Carson, DDT, and Me 🌎

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

I first met Rachel Carson in 1952 when I was a graduate student in the Yale Conservation Program, which today is called Environmental Studies. I was working on my Master’s degree project. It was to raise funds to save the Sunken Forest on Fire Island, NY. This was a forest of mainly American holly trees on this barrier island off the south coast of Long Island.

Dr. Richard ”Dick” Pough, the well-known bird guide author, had suggested to me that I take on this project. He gave me the names of various people and foundations to contact. One of them was John Oakes, the N.Y. Times editorial writer, who wrote an article about my efforts. Rachel Carson read it, called me up, and asked, “Can I help?” Walt Disney had recently made a movie of her book The Sea Around Us. She came to speak at our fundraising dinner about her book and her love of the sea. We raised several thousand dollars towards saving the Sunken Forest!

It was about the same time that I received a call from Ernie Brooks, director of the Old Dominion Foundation in New York City. They had approved a grant of $15,000 toward my project, but he could not give the money directly to me. It had to go to a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. I had no idea what that was.

So I immediately called Dick Pough and told him my problem. Two years earlier he and some friends from the Ecological Society had formed a nonprofit. They had just received their tax-exempt status. He said that these funds could be funneled through their little new organization to help my project. When I asked him what its name was, he said, “We’re calling it The Nature Conservancy!” Today this is one of the largest conservation organizations in the world!

I was soon joined in my efforts by others who wanted to help. We were successful in saving the Sunken Forest. It later became part of the Fire Island National Seashore run by the National Park Service.

Rachel Carson called me again six months later and wanted me to do a survey of what natural areas were still left along the Atlantic Coast between Maine and Florida. She had received a grant to do this work. I had to turn her down because I had already accepted an important summer job at Valley Ranch in Wyoming. Wow, that was hard for me!

Less than a decade later, Rachel Carson wrote her most famous book, Silent Spring. It was how insecticides, especially DDT, were damaging many of our valuable ecosystems in the United States. As a result, we were losing some of our most important bird species, such as the Bald Eagle (our national emblem), Osprey, and Peregrine Falcon, to name a few.

When people sprayed DDT to kill various flies and bugs, some of it would get into ponds, streams, and lakes. A tiny water organism would absorb a small amount of DDT. Then a small fish would eat that organism. Then a bigger fish would eat the smaller one. The amount of DDT would increase in the fatty tissue of each fish as one went up what we call the “food chain” with bigger and bigger fish. Finally when a big bird, like an eagle, would eat one of the large fish, it would get enough DDT in its body to do damage to its egg shells. They would become so soft that the eggs would break. No baby eagles would hatch!

Rachel Carson died of cancer shortly after her famous book was published. She was a great biologist and today is recognized as one of the most significant authors of her century. I feel greatly honored to have known her.

Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check or e-mail or call (303) 499-3647.

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