Right fish, wrong pond

If Rachel Carson had been a better scientist while at Johns Hopkins, she might never have become the science writer who sparked the environmental movement.

Credit: Illustration by Lauren Simkin-Berke

"I'm getting sort of used to the idea that the lab is my world and is going to be my chief existence until I get my degree," Rachel Carson wrote to a close friend in November 1929, having just started a graduate program in marine biology at Johns Hopkins. "Just so one doesn't become that pitiable spectacle—'a typical biologist' (or typical student of any sort) in the process, it's all right."

Carson never became that typical biologist. Instead, after four years of academic and financial struggle, she left Johns Hopkins with a master's degree and turned from doing science to writing about it. Working in government and freelancing on the side, Carson eventually published her way to fame with her 1951 best-seller, The Sea Around Us, which combined advanced marine science with clear, elegant prose. Carson's next book, Silent Spring, a withering indictment of pesticides, turned her into an international celebrity. She appeared on national television and testified before Congress; her book even prompted President John F. Kennedy to appoint a commission to investigate whether her findings were true. (They were.)

It seems safe to say that none of Carson's professors anticipated she would become one of Johns Hopkins' most famous and influential alumni. In a lukewarm but typical recommendation, Herbert S. Jennings, the head of Carson's department while she was there, wrote, "Miss Carson is a thorough, hard working person, not brilliant, but very capable, and with a good knowledge of biology. . . . She is thoroughly dependable and will continue to be a satisfactory teacher." Carson later acknowledged that she, too, did not foresee parlaying her disappointing academic career into a successful literary one. "It never occurred to me," she told an audience of female journalists in 1954, speaking of her education, "that I was merely getting something to write about."

While at Johns Hopkins, Rachel Carson made an important journey from inexperienced biology student to jaded researcher to skillful narrator of nature.

But in Carson's letters, as well as the writings of her friends and mentors, we can see her getting that something to write about. Her course and lab work put her in contact with some of the top biologists of the time and gave her a background in subjects like organic chemistry, genetics, and physiology—all of which would be crucial to her later critique of pesticides and toxins. Her master's thesis, while not groundbreaking science, shows her learning to observe and describe living beings in precise detail. Those who knew her tell of her attention to detail and her enthusiasm for studying the natural world, and for sharing what she learned.

While at Johns Hopkins, Rachel Carson made an important journey from inexperienced biology student to jaded researcher to skillful narrator of nature. Her education didn't quite give her what she needed to become a successful researcher. But it gave her something that might have been more important—the foundation to become the most famous science writer of her age and the voice that launched the environmental movement.

"I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn't assume I was going to be a writer," Carson told her 1954 audience in a speech later published in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Indeed, she had her first story published in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, at the age of 11. She later earned a scholarship to study English at the prestigious Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in Pittsburgh. But Carson also excelled in science and was steered toward biology by an influential professor named Mary Skinker, who became her mentor. By the time Carson graduated from PCW in the spring of 1929, she had in hand a $200 scholarship to continue her studies at Johns Hopkins.

Carson was preparing to enter graduate school at a precarious time for women in science. Although around a quarter of the students in her program were women, the faculty teaching them—and thus their academic role models—were all men. And women scientists had far worse employment prospects in academia than their male colleagues—their best opportunities typically involved teaching posts at schools like PCW, or work in government agencies.

Carson spent part of the summer of 1929 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she met her Johns Hopkins research adviser, the marine biologist Rheinart P. Cowles. To increase the chances that she would earn her master's in two years, Cowles advised Carson to begin narrowing her thesis topic right away. The summer of 1929 was also the first time Carson saw the ocean, which would become her enduring passion and literary muse. That September, after a pleasant but brief sojourn at the Marine Biological Laboratory, she headed for Baltimore. She had found an apartment on Homewood Terrace, a quiet street two blocks north of University Avenue. (The university's only dormitory did not accept female students.) From her apartment it was a short commute to Gilman Hall, which housed the zoology lab.

Johns Hopkins, though a far cry from the cozy PCW, impressed Carson, at least at first. "I do like it tremendously," she wrote to a friend in one of several letters now archived at the Rachel Carson Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Carson's legacy. "The professors are splendid to work with and the students are a dandy crowd." But her challenges quickly mounted, beginning with her four science classes. "Chemistry is of course my chief agony, but really it isn't as bad as I thought it would be," she wrote. "I'm getting used to tearing through the experiments as fast as the men do." At a moment of low inspiration, she also revealed a slyly subversive attitude toward her studies: "I just tell myself that in ten years it won't make any difference, except that I can say 'oh yes, I had Organic at Johns Hopkins.'" By the following spring, though, Carson had triumphed, both in chemistry and in confidence: "I got an 85 in the course, and I never was so proud of an 85 in my life! It's fun to take a course with about seventy men and one other girl, but stiff!"

But ominously for her future as a scientist, Carson had trouble making headway in her research. She began with a study comparing the brains and cranial nerves of various reptiles, but after more than a year sectioning snake and lizard heads she had little to show for it. (Her friend Dorothy Thompson Seif speculates in a memoir that the investigation Carson hoped to do might have been beyond the scope of technology of the time.) Declaring the reptile study a bust, Carson turned briefly to a project involving squirrel embryos. But here, too, she ran into trouble. "The squirrels would not breed, and there was just nothing to do about it," she wrote in a letter, adding that her Texas dealer also lost his animals to a fire. "I have made so many false starts along lines which yielded no results, but that, as I am learning, is the fate of most people."

Carson had the essential combination of deep expertise in the subject and a rare ability to translate her knowledge into compelling and accessible stories.

Despite the course work and lab work, Carson's life wasn't all drudgery. She took intense interest in her friends' lives and enjoyed occasional visits with them. When she managed to get outside, she found her mid-Atlantic surroundings a pleasant change from cloudy and polluted Pittsburgh. "I do like the Baltimore climate very much on the whole," she wrote. "Most days are beautifully clear and sunny. Many roses are to be seen in bloom in the gardens, and chrysanthemums every where. Last night I got a beautiful bunch of them in the market for .35. When it rains it surely rains hard, because of the oceanic climate, I suppose."

But Carson's academic challenges were soon compounded by financial ones. "The old bug bear of impecuniousness," is how she put it in a letter to Seif. Her family had never been well-off, and when the Depression hit, her father's already struggling business career struggled even more. So in the spring of 1930, Carson persuaded the whole crew—her parents, brother, sister, and two nieces—to join her in Baltimore. They moved to a house in Stemmers Run, a suburb east of the city. Carson now had an 11-mile commute by trolley, but she lived surrounded by woods and only two miles from the Chesapeake Bay. She supported her family financially during this difficult time. Her brother, Robert, an electrician, also provided some income, but in the Depression, this could be unreliable: Carson biographer Linda Lear writes that in exchange for a television repair he once received a litter of cats—which Carson welcomed.

Her financial woes increased as graduate school wore on. After her first year the university raised tuition by half, to $300, and she was forced to become a part-time student. She found a position working with the rat and fruit fly colonies in the lab of Raymond Pearl, a pioneering Johns Hopkins biologist who studied the effects of heredity and environment on longevity. Although genetics was not why she came to Johns Hopkins, Carson valued the opportunity to be part of the Pearl lab's dynamic environment. "His laboratories are certainly the real thing, and it's a decidedly worth while experience to work in them," she wrote. But she also recognized the toll it was taking on her own research, complaining, "I just don't have time even to think any more, —it's worse this year than ever before. I feel sometimes as though I'm not getting any where as far as the degree is concerned."

Carson also earned money teaching summer classes at Johns Hopkins and in the University of Maryland's Dental and Pharmacy School. But like her family obligations, teaching pulled her away from what she had come to Hopkins for: research. After her two false starts, she asked Cowles for a project she could finish quickly. He suggested she describe the development of the pronephros, a kidneylike organ that appears and then disappears in the urinary system of developing fish. The work was painstaking—Carson had to section catfish embryos at each day of their development, stain the sections, and draw them in detail while peering into a camera lucida, a device that superimposes the image onto the drawing surface. But finally she was making progress, albeit toward a more modest goal than she had originally set out to achieve. Nevertheless, she wrote to a friend in August 1931, "It will be nip and tuck to get the thing done and the thesis written in acceptable form by next May."

Carson earned her master's degree in 1932, a year behind schedule, with a 108-page thesis titled "The Development of the Pronephros During the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of the Catfish." The writing, while scientifically authoritative, is dense and abstruse. With awkward phrases like, "An extensive and accurate investigation of the whole subject therefore remains a desideratum," it yields little hint of the graceful style Carson would soon develop in her professional writing. But the research, while not blazingly original, was certainly solid. Carson's adviser Cowles described the study as "a good one [that] constitutes a worthy contribution to our knowledge of the urinary system of fishes," and wrote that "the investigation has been done with care and the description of the results shows that it was undertaken from an exceptionally critical point of view."

Cowles alone of the Johns Hopkins faculty seemed to see a future for Carson in research, describing her in a recommendation as "clear-headed and accurate" and "capable as an investigator." Most of the other faculty members seemed to tend toward Jennings' perspective—they commended Carson's teaching, perhaps sincerely, but perhaps also suggesting by omission that they didn't expect much from her as a researcher. Carson's slow progress may have played a part in this skepticism, but it is hard not to wonder how her gender influenced her professors' evaluations. At any rate, they certainly didn't make for a strong foundation on which to build a research career.

Her research struggles notwithstanding, Carson from all indications intended to go on for her doctorate. She spent another summer at Woods Hole, though Lear writes that what she did there is lost. Carson also continued teaching at the dental school and began a new line of research on how different levels of water salinity affect eels. In fact, the eels seemed to animate her more than any of her previous projects. Her friend Seif described in an unpublished manuscript a visit to Carson's lab in fall 1932: "[Carson] continued to talk while she was assembling her testing equipment. 'Eels are fascinating creatures. How they can adapt as larvae to living in fresh water and then to sea water is not well-known. Did you know that as almost elvers [baby eels] they migrate hundreds of miles from the seas, where they are born, into the freshwater streams and ponds of our forests.'" Carson went on like this for a while, then caught herself: "'That was quite a spiel. I do get carried away.'" But perhaps, rather than getting carried away, Carson was simply doing what came naturally to her: storytelling about nature.

Despite finding a subject that apparently sparked her interest, Carson did not complete a doctorate. There seems to be little documentation on this period of her life, but what exists confirms her extremely difficult financial situation. Her university personnel file lists five "partially dependent" family members: mother and father, sister, and two nieces (the cats apparently didn't count). On top of being dependent, her father and sister were in poor health; both would die in the next few years. Whether due to financial strain, research difficulties, lack of faculty support, or all three, Carson left Johns Hopkins around the beginning of 1934, with no plan for what she would do next.

Even with an academic career out of reach, Carson was not leaving empty-handed. She was now an expert in marine biology, having studied with some of the top people in the field. She also had her undergraduate background in English, which gave her a broader humanistic perspective on science that many "typical biologists" lacked. And she had a particular knack for seeing and describing precisely. The trick was harnessing these strengths to earn herself and her dependents a living during the worst of the Great Depression.

Carson's first break came through her former undergraduate mentor, Mary Skinker. Skinker connected Carson with Elmer Higgins, a division chief at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries who needed someone to write a series of radio scripts about marine life. The bureau's scientists and a professional writer had all failed at this task, and Higgins was desperate enough to take a chance on an unproven writer. His gamble paid off: Carson had the essential combination of deep expertise in the subject and a rare ability to translate her knowledge into compelling and accessible stories. She took the material and made it shine.

Carson then repackaged some of the research she had done for the scripts and sold it to The Baltimore Sun, demonstrating the entrepreneurial pluck that would propel her throughout her career. Her article came out as a 4,000-word feature titled "It'll Be Shad-Time Soon," which told readers about the decline of an important Chesapeake Bay fish. The piece earned her $20, and it began a productive relationship that led to a series of feature articles in The Sun and its affiliated newspapers. It also gave Carson an opportunity to hone her narrative voice outside the strictures of government writing.

In these early writings, Carson's ecological perspective began to emerge. In "Shad-Time," for example, she described a "delicate balance" between the fecund shad and its various predators—a set of relationships that she noted had been "rudely disturbed" by human activity. And she made her first calls for humans to change how they interact with fellow species: "If this favorite of the Chesapeake Bay region is to hold its own against the forces of destruction, regulations must be imposed which consider the welfare of the fish as well as that of the fisherman." In another article she surveyed the decline of wildlife in America and warned that by draining wetlands, plowing prairies, and unleashing the Dust Bowl, humans had done something more profound: They had altered the "balance of nature." Decades later, she would make the same arguments about pesticides.

Carson was also honing her distinct literary voice. Her description of shad embryology, for example, could not have been more distant in tone from her dispassionate master's thesis: "Bit by bit, the delicate tissues take form. Unblinking eyes peer through the confining walls. Slender threads of blood vessels lead to a pulsating, crimson sac, the heart. V-shaped ridges along the back hint of developing muscles. Within about a week the occupant of the frail prison has become sufficiently active to effect his own release." She peppered her prose with allusions that reached beyond science—to Aldous Huxley, to Shakespeare, and to Greek and Roman mythology.

Rachel Carson had discovered that her m├ętier was not to conduct scientific research but to illuminate it, contextualize it, and share it with the public. Like the baby shad, she had been released.

Gabriel Popkin, A&S '13 (MA), is a science writer based in the Washington, D.C., area and a new graduate of the university's science writing program.