Should We Be Honoring Rachel Carson?

Published December 9, 2005

Dear editor:

On December 6, the Allegheny County Council (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) voted 14-0 to honor Rachel Carson by renaming the city’s Ninth Street Bridge, near her former Allegheny River home. For me, it was a fitting tribute to a woman who touched my life.

Sadly for the world, however, the unintended consequence of her book, Silent Spring, is a monument of human tragedy.

Fifty years ago, I read Carson’s essay on wonder, which offered me the courage to fight off so many naysaying peers insisting that adult sophistication precludes seeing the world through the eyes of an eight-year-old. Because of Ms. Carson, I continue to see this beautiful world through my own childhood eyes, reveling daily in the wonders of nature and technology that bring dozens of “Wows” each day.

Sadly though, this wonderful lady overstepped her knowledge as a journalist in her most famous book, which ultimately led to the elimination of the chemical that by 1971 had freed the world from the human tragedy of malaria. Though her claims of harm to humans from pesticides such as DDT were never supported by scientific proof, her brilliant writing–talent that I so admired and embraced–led to the loss of one of man’s greatest tools against disease.

Now, every year, half a billion people, mostly in Africa, get malaria. It leaves them unable to work or care for their families for weeks or months on end. More than a million die and tens of thousands are left brain-damaged. Half of those afflicted are children.

Just spraying tiny amounts of DDT on the inside walls of houses once or twice a year keeps 90 percent of mosquitoes from entering homes, and thus reduces malaria by 75 percent or more.

Telling countries they must not use this insecticide is an unconscionable human rights violation. Rachel Carson would surely not want this to be her legacy.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute and editor of several leading scientific reference books, including (with Jack Keeley) The Water Encyclopedia.