Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: book review and interview with author Robert K. Musil
Rachel Carson

It’s January, so perhaps you made a New Year’s resolution to go deeper with your environmental activism this year, and perhaps you also wanted to read more. If either or both of these apply to you (and even if they don’t), I recommend you pick up Rachel Caron and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (2015, Rutgers University Press) by Robert K. Musil. What makes this book a creative and inspiring read is that Musil tells the story not only of Rachel Carson, whom we probably all know of as the most well-known female environmental scientist of the twentieth century and outstanding author of Silent Spring, but he also connects her with the female environmental scientists, ornithologists, nature writers, environmental health professionals, and environmental justice activists in the several generations before and after Carson. Rachel Carson’s life spanned the years 1907-1964, and this book also introduces us to her mother, Maria McLean Carson, to women as far back as Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894), who published Rural Hours in 1850, and to environmental scholars and activists from the present day such as Terry Tempest Williams and Devra Davis. The resulting book shares not only the fascinating stories and achievements of these women, but serves as an inspiring survey of the American environmental movement from 1850 to the present.

Through the pages of Rachel Carson and Her Sisters, readers encounter pioneering women who opened the way for others to follow them into graduate school and scientific careers. Musil draws our attention to women who first began researching the links between toxins, pollution, and public health, and how women before and after Carson utilized wonder and affection in their writing in order to instill care for the natural world in their readers. As Musil puts it:

Rachel Carson is the inheritor of two traditions in American history in which women have played prominent roles. The first…is a movement that has developed the love of birds, nature, and the writing of natural history; it has sought to protect and conserve America’s wildlife and wild places. The second tradition…is a movement driven by a concern for the health of children and communities and the effects of chemicals and other pollutants on our lives. (54)

Telling the stories of Carson’s predecessors in these two streams opens up an area of American history that was previously not well documented, and Musil shares their stories in a way that is interesting and educational. Photos of many of the women make their stories even more alive.

Musil does not stop with Carson, however. Had women’s environmental advocacy and activism stopped with Carson, it would be a rather sad tale. Instead, Musil profiles women who have continued to advocate in areas similar to Carson’s concerns and passions. From the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Musil profiles Terry Tempest Williams, whose interdisciplinary, ecological, imaginative, and poetic writing finds many similarities with Carson’s. He also writes of Sandra Steingraber’s work against natural gas fracking and the links she highlights between the fracking process and cancers, as well as her narrative nonfiction writing that fuses her own story with her findings around environmental health. Readers also meet Devra Davis, whose work in epidemiology and environmental health has helped pinpoint environmental causes of many cancers, and who also writes for popular audiences. And finally, readers get to know Theo Colborn, who redefined the field of endocrine disruption through her research into the health impacts of trace amounts of chemicals.

Musil wrote this book shortly before he was asked to be the director of the Rachel Carson Council, so we hope you will enjoy learning more about his impetus for writing this book, as well as his work at the Rachel Carson Council, through reading the following interview.

Whole Terrain: What first drew you to the story of Rachel Carson?

Robert K. Musil: I never have a good answer for that question! I heard about Rachel Carson when I was young, but I got Rachel Carson confused with Anne Morrow Lindbergh—my mother often had books on the coffee table when I was growing up, such as The Gift from the Sea and The Sea around Us. It wasn’t until much later in life that I got to know more about Rachel Carson as a person.

I identify with her combination of science, literature, feeling, and empathy, and I also found it important (and people told me it was important) that I include more women in the discussion of what goes on in the environmental movement.

Rachel’s ethic and her approach combine meticulous science with a sense of awe, imagination, wonder, and even spirituality. She would often say that science without empathy for other living things was really quite dangerous.

It also appealed to me that she tried—successfully—to reach so many people; she was a best-selling author, among other things.

WT: What sparked the idea to write this book, including generations of women before and after Carson?

RKM: I had actually intended the book to be mainly about modern women. As I was lecturing at colleges with my first book, which was called Hope for a Heated Planet: How Americans are Fighting Global Warming and Building a Better Future, after my lectures, people would say, “Where are the women? Why don’t you talk about women?” I had a longstanding interest in women authors and feminism, so I started spicing up my lectures with women. Obviously, the first one would be Rachel Carson. I planned to write about contemporaries and friends I’ve worked with, women like Terry Tempest Williams, Devra Davis, and Theo Colborn.

But, because I’ve been a historian, I thought I ought to give a little background, a little context, and that started me looking backwards. That’s how I discovered 150 years of women leading up to Rachel Carson.

It was a whole education for me, even though I had studied 19th century literature and American studies pretty intensely. That increased my determination to try to write about these women, and have it be readable as best I could. History and journalism both tend to focus on the powerful: history is often about generals and presidents and heads of corporations. And meanwhile, there are people all over this country and all over the world working in political and environmental movements, in teaching, in writing, and all sorts of things that are making a huge difference.

I like the values of these women who wrote before Rachel Carson. For a long time, they were considered sentimental, Victorian, moralistic, not scientific enough. That’s exactly what they said about Rachel Carson! These women did good science. They wanted to reach people. They wrote for youth and children. They wrote popular books and best sellers. They sometimes would anthropomorphize the birds, telling little stories that are actually quite charming to get people interested and caring about little creatures. And that is part of this sense of feeling for the “other,” anything that’s different, any creature.

I wanted to know, how did we get a Rachel Carson? What makes a Rachel Carson? Can anybody be a Rachel Carson? When I go out and speak, or in my work with the Rachel Carson Council, that’s my message: We don’t need just one Rachel Carson, we need a thousand Rachel Carsons. You could do that. You could be that person.

I also thought it would give people heart, that there really were people out there doing this.

WT: Were there exciting moments during the research process, of realization or discovery, which you would like to share?

Alice Hamilton

RKM: There were many revelations. For example, I went to Johns Hopkins graduate school in public and environmental health. But when I came upon Dr. Alice Hamilton, who was a pioneering woman physician who worked with Jane Addams in settlement houses, working with poor people in Chicago at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, I had never heard of this woman, and she was the mother of all occupational and environmental medicine. She went in and traced diseases of workers in their houses in the awful parts of Chicago near factories and stockyards and the like, battled against lead in gasoline, and was an incredible pioneer woman in environmentalism, who invented the field, basically.

Harriet Hardy

Then I discovered that her friend and younger colleague, Dr. Harriett Hardy, who taught at Harvard, had trained people who had trained me, and that I had used toxicology books that had emanated from the work of these women whom I had no idea about.

One thing led to another, and I came upon another woman related to this, Anna Baetjer, who did studies as a more modern woman, in the middle of the 20th century. She did studies of the effects of chromium and other heavy metals on workers in Baltimore, and wrote things for the US Army during the war that led to a whole series of reforms on what women could work on and what they needed to watch out for in terms of occupational health.

Anna Baetjer

One of my other favorite historical women in the book is Susan Fenimore Cooper. Because I had been an English and American literature major and because I’m a “senior” environmentalist, of course I had heard of James Fenimore Cooper, and read Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, and stuff that people don’t read anymore. However, I had no idea that his dutiful daughter, who edited all his manuscripts and put his books together, had written her own well-received novel (published anonymously, because she was a woman) and the first big serious best-selling nature book in the country before Thoreau had published Walden. Rural Hours is a nature journal digest and discussion of flora, fauna, and what blooms, along with sociological observations about the disappearance of small town life and forests, and the decline of the Oneida Indians. And yet, nobody talks about her.

WT: It seems like a lot of the women you chose were connected to one another in some way.

RKM: There are associations, although it’s not really possible to know exactly their effect on Rachel Carson. I had fun connecting up these influences.

For example, Rachel’s mother, Maria McLean Carson, was a brilliant woman. She was the daughter of a very learned Presbyterian minister (and ministers in the late 19th century were among the educated elite). Maria went to Washington Female Seminary in western Pennsylvania, which is like an almost-college, but women couldn’t quite have college then. She was top of the class by far in everything: in math, in science, in history, in languages. She was so good they even “allowed” her take courses at the Washington College, which was for men, adjacent to the women’s seminary. She became a teacher, but when she got married, she had to give up her job, because women had to resign when they got married in the late 19th century. So, she poured all that learning and energy and concern into Rachel. She had her reading stuff at an early age, including St. Nicholas Magazine, which was a very popular magazine at the time that had well known authors for adults and for children.

Florence Merriam Bailey

And so, as far as connections, I indicate that Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote for St. Nicholas. I cannot prove that either Maria or Rachel read those articles, but it’s part of the milieu, part of the environment in which they were growing up. Same for one of my favorite women in the book, Florence Merriam Bailey, the first campus environmental organizer, who started all sorts of Audubon stuff on campus at Smith College in the 1880s: she published in St. Nicholas.

Or, as I mentioned with Alice Hamilton and Harriet Hardy, and the connections through Hopkins, I mentioned some of the women that Rachel probably knew when she was at Hopkins. There weren’t that many women and they would have been well known.

Rachel also worked with a very interesting woman biologist when she was in grad school named Maud DeWitt Pearl, who edited a journal called Human Biology. She was a quite prominent biologist, along with her husband, Raymond. They were the first prominent biologists to break with the racist eugenics movement, which was the prevailing theory in American biology circles at the time. Rachel was the half-time assistant for these biologists, who said, “This is bunk. We’ve looked at the genetics, and it’s not true.” And they published work denouncing it, and joined the NAACP. These were people Rachel was working with when she was young, who helped shape her views.

Some of the influences were quite direct. Florence Merriam Bailey helped found the Audubon Naturalist Society. It’s still here in Washington. It was originally the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, and the founding group included President Theodore Roosevelt, and Florence Merriam Bailey. When Florence died at nearly 90 in 1948, Rachel Carson had just joined board of directors of the Audubon Naturalist Society. Florence Merriam Bailey was the first major bird writing woman, with field guides and books that won the Brewster Prize in excellence in ornithology, and she trained people (mostly women) all over the city and around in ornithology and bird watching and the like, so there’s a pretty direct connection there.

WT: Did you worry about writing a book about women, as a man? How did you navigate that?

RKM: Navigate is a good term. I worried about it. There are some pretty reputable male historians of women’s history and feminist history, but I was a little concerned. I sent the book off with some trepidation to Carolyn Merchant, who is an early and leading feminist environmental historian. I figured, “Well Bob, the book’s going to come out, somebody’s going to look at it; you might as well find out what they’re going to say now!” and I was quite relieved. She actually loved it, and felt there was a lot there that should have been done before but hadn’t been. I did worry, but I believe it’s important for men to write things like this. When a guy speaks up and says, “Hey guys, we’re not paying enough attention to the role of women. They are and have been central, and bring a different perspective,” other men may, unfortunately, listen a little more closely.

The book is also designed to be a history of the environmental movement, and its combination of nature and birds on the one hand, with people and environmental health and toxins on the other. If you read through the whole book, you actually have an introduction to all sorts of things like toxicology and epidemiology by reading about how women wrote about them.

I tried to indicate that most of the women whom I write about were brilliant and made incredible contributions, but were kept from the pinnacle of power, whether in the environmental movement, or academia, or government. So, almost automatically, they were not defenders of the status quo. They had a stance, a perspective, that allowed them to ask fresh, different, creative, bold questions about biology and the environment, and not just clinging to the established “truths.”

Theo Colborn

An example might be Theo Colborn, who was an amateur birder and naturalist her whole life. She helped her husband run drug stores and raise sheep until he died, at which point she went to graduate school in her late 50s, got a PhD in zoology, and then came to Washington, D.C. She did a series of studies and looked at 5,000 different studies on endocrine disruption. This was a mystery no one could figure out: why there were these odd effects on people and animals on the formation of their gender. She put it all together and wrote this book that said there are these minute, almost invisible, doses of certain toxic chemicals which, when any animal (a mouse or a person) is exposed in utero at just the wrong time, it can have these disastrous effects. She was ridiculed; she was seen as not a real scientist because no one had heard of her, just like Rachel Carson. And now that endocrine disruption theory and work is central to our understanding of what chemicals do.

That’s just to say that, I don’t recommend that women be oppressed or kept from power, but the effect is often to be bolder, to have a fresh perspective, and to not be a defender of the status quo. This was true for Rachel with Silent Spring. She got attacked by people in the Department of Agriculture; she got attacked by scientists who represented chemical companies, and so forth, because people sprayed chemicals everywhere and that was the status quo.

WT: You not only wrote about Rachel Carson, but now you lead the Rachel Carson Council. Can you tell us about the work of the Rachel Carson Council?

RKM: The Rachel Carson Council was actually envisioned by Rachel Carson. We call ourselves a legacy organization. As she was dying of breast cancer while writing Silent Spring, she wanted a group to carry on her work, so her best friends and colleagues—mostly women—formed the organization. The group focused mostly on pesticides and herbicides originally, following in the work of Silent Spring.

I came along three years ago, because I had written Rachel Carson and Her Sisters and had run other large environmental groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility. We still worry, as Rachel did, about nature itself, and what is happening to birds and wildlife because of toxic chemicals.

We expanded the purview of the Rachel Carson Council to include climate change and climate justice. Rachel Carson had a sense of justice and a concern for people who were different, people who were “other,” and a sense of fairness. Climate justice has to do with the effects of climate change not only on the natural world and on polar bears and hurricanes, but also on how it affects people on the ground. We educate people about that, put out papers on our website, and so on.

Then we began to work on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs): huge factory farms, where they jam thousands of chickens and hogs together in horrible conditions to create mass-produced meat. People don’t realize that Rachel Carson exposed this in 1964 with a foreword to a book called Animal Machines by Ruth Harrison. It was the first big exposé of what was then the new phenomenon of factory farms. We organize in North Carolina around hogs and chickens, and most of those facilities (not surprisingly) happen to be located near poor communities, and communities of color. Nearby residents suffer from the stench, the air pollution, and the water pollution, and animal factories are a significant cause of global climate change, predominantly from the methane that is given off from the waste that is gathered in these huge lagoons or chicken manure piles. We’re in Washington, D.C. and we advocate with the federal government and with state governments on these issues.

We’re also concerned with some related issues in North Carolina. Because we’ve been organizing there, we discovered (though it’s fairly obvious) that companies are clear-cutting North Carolina forests to create wood pellets to be shipped over to the European Union and Great Britain to be used as “highly efficient” fuel to create a cleaner form of energy. That actually counts for those countries as an emissions reduction, but studies have shown that the process is as bad as coal, while stripping forests back here in North Carolina and throughout the Southeast.

Similarly, we’re concerned about fossil fuels in general, and we have been working on a campaign to prevent the building of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It would be 600 miles or so and carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. It hasn’t been built. We’ve been publishing major reports, and talking to legislators both nationally and in the states involved.

We also try to involve people beyond environmental sciences. We’re just building a campus network and currently have 45 campuses, involving professors as well as students and faculty, including people in the arts. I mentioned that Rachel believed you need to use your imagination, wonder, and awe, so we try to involve people in English, history, philosophy, religion, art, and music as well as scientists who care about the environment. There aren’t many groups or places for people who are in the humanities and who care about the environment on American campuses, so we link them in with the environmental scientists and the environmental health people, and then on to policymakers.

WT: What current project of the RCC do you think Rachel Carson would have been most passionate about?

RKM: Oh boy, that’s a good question. I think she would appreciate our work on climate change. She actually knew about the earliest studies of climate change back in the Kennedy White House, and had an early concern. She didn’t get to write about it, and she died before people did much about it, but she tended to look at the big picture, and what was happening and affecting a broad swath of people.

I think she would have liked the CAFO work, too, because she wrote about it, and there aren’t enough groups working on it.

She would have been very happy that we combine grassroots organizing and education with advocacy, because she was quite political. She wrote and worked on legislation and speeches for the Kennedy White House and with Stewart Udall, who was the secretary of the interior. She was not simply a brilliant writer who wrote one book that lit up the environmental movement that changed the world. She also worked with scientists, with movements, with other environmental groups, and believed that we need to change policy and politicians, not just our individual behaviors (as important as that is). So, I like to think she’d be out there on the front lines right alongside us.


Bio: Robert K. Musil, PhD, MPH is the President and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, the legacy organization envisioned by Rachel Carson and founded in 1965 by her closest friends and colleagues. Dr. Musil was named President and CEO in February, 2014 and is only the third head of this historic environmental group.

Dr. Musil is also a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, School of Public Affairs, American University, where he teaches about climate change and American environmental politics. He also has been a Visiting Scholar at the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy, Wesley Theological Seminary, where he taught about religious responses to global warming and security threats.

From 1992-2006, Dr. Musil was the longest-serving Executive Director and CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He is a graduate of Yale and Northwestern Universities and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and has been a Visiting Honorary Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and of Pembroke College, Cambridge University.

He is the author of Hope for a Heated Planet: How Americans are Fighting Global Warming and Building a Better Future (Rutgers University Press, 2009); Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (Rutgers University Press, 2015) and Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Planet (Bartleby Press, 2016).

News Reporter
Cherice Bock edited Whole Terrain's volumes 22 and 23, "Trust" and "Breaking Bread." She is currently a general editor and works mainly on soliciting, editing, and creating web content.

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