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Forum: Let's make some noise about Rachel Carson

The pioneering author of 'Silent Spring' deserves monumental recognition in her hometown. It would be good for Pittsburgh, too

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Esther L. Barazzone

It seems appropriate during National Women's History Month, and during the 40th anniversary year of the publication of "Silent Spring," to ask why Pittsburgh has never claimed ownership of its only native daughter who has achieved worldwide recognition. As we seek to remake our city's national and international image, it is time that we give Rachel Carson the recognition she deserves.

  Esther L. Barazzone is president of Chatham College. She is chair of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development's Task Force on Young People. 

In June 1962, Rachel Carson published a series of articles in The New Yorker that caught the attention of Interior Secretary Morris Udall and President John Kennedy. Published that fall as the book we know as "Silent Spring," these articles triggered crucial public hearings, including a Senate Committee hearing chaired by Abraham Ribicoff, to examine the impact of human actions on the environment. Despite hostile attacks by corporate and congressional foes on the author and her findings, "Silent Spring" led to a ban on the use of DDT and the regulation of other chemical pesticides. A revolution in public understanding about the environment was created, and the international environmental movement was born.

Carson was a native of Springdale and alumna of the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College), class of 1929. It is past time for Pittsburgh to recognize this native daughter and her remarkable legacy by erecting a statue in her honor in a prominent place in the city.

Rachel Carson's claim to fame is well established. In 1999, Time Magazine identified her as one of the "100 People of the Century," and as one of the 20 most influential scientists of the century, a century defined by science. She was one of only 18 women on the list of 100 and the only Pittsburgh native. She did many things in addition to writing "Silent Spring." She was a noted author, scientist and public advocate known around the world. In 1936, she became the first female biologist ever hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and ultimately rose to head the Information Division, writing numerous pamphlets on conservation and natural resources. In 1952 she left government service to concentrate on her writing, creating books such as "The Sea Around Us," which showed her extraordinarily lyrical sensibilities as well as her deep understanding of ecology. She died of breast cancer in 1964 at the age of 56. Among her pallbearers at the National Cathedral service were some of America's most prominent public leaders. In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

Carson has been recognized in other regions. The offices of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection are located in the Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg. More than 5,000 miles of the Maine Coastline have been protected through designation as the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

In Pittsburgh, there is only the Rachel Carson Homestead, about 15 miles outside of the city, a valiant effort to preserve the small remaining patch of the family farm; a 34-mile Rachel Carson Trail, a hiking trail from North Park to Harrison Hills Park; and a small pocket garden with a plaque at History and Landmarks in Station Square. The Rachel Carson Homestead and Chatham College -- where we operate the Rachel Carson Institute -- routinely draw visitors from around the world curious to see her environment. They were the sites for a recent Japanese television production on Carson.

We, as a city, seem to have little awareness of her and even less appreciation for her stature. Even those who might be expected to mention her fail to do so; I remember being surprised a few years back when a hopeful announcement was made in an important public setting, with all appropriate dignitaries assembled, of the formation of the University of the Environment as a collaboration of all the universities and colleges in the region; no mention was made of Rachel Carson.

It is extraordinary that Pittsburgh has not already identified itself with its most famous daughter. After all, this is a place that earned world renown for its cleanup efforts during its Renaissances, and continues to work hard to develop the region's natural assets. Isn't Carson an appropriate icon of the city's aspirations? We should take the "green" of the digital greenhouse seriously, and celebrate Carson's legacy to Pittsburgh, letting her symbolize for us not only the massive cleanup after the smoky '50s, but also our new more comprehensive environmental vision.

Why has Pittsburgh failed to celebrate its link to Rachel Carson? Is it because corporations remember opposing her so vigorously during those early years? Today, with so many corporations now leaders in environmental preservation, surely that is in the past? Is it perhaps because the city has such a historically masculine self-concept that is still subtly at work? While it may be understandable that a city formed by the brawn of heavy industry may have had that historic self-image, isn't it time to make that self-image a little more complex, in ways that point to the new future we are working so hard to create?

People and institutions are inspired by those whose images they keep before them, and identified with those they honor. It is striking that the only public reference to a woman I have seen in the city is a plaque to Jane Swisshelm Gray, near the Duquesne Club. For the future of the city, it is time to make a visible statement of women's importance to Pittsburgh. As we try to keep young people here, both those born here and those who come to study here, and to recruit young skilled workers to our region who might easily choose to go elsewhere, it is important to consider the visual messages we send about who is to be encouraged and celebrated.

Last fall, Susan B. Hansen of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Relations released the results of her study of more than 2,000 graduates of Pittsburgh universities. She found that African Americans and executive women leave the region in disproportional percentages, largely for lack of opportunity to advance at upper levels of salary and responsibility.

In its Dec. 28 issue, the Pittsburgh Business Times reported a study by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research that cited women's inadequate representation on economic development boards, and especially corporate boards, and the failure to improve that representation in recent years. The Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington has identified Pennsylvania as one of the 10 worst states in the nation for women, due to several factors, including employment and earning opportunities, reproductive rights and the availability of good child care, and presence in public leadership positions.

It is well known that people wish to settle and expend their personal leadership capital in a place where they see others like themselves advancing, materially and in public respect and recognition. Certainly we still have much to do to make Pittsburgh a place where women can be confident that they will advance suitably in the ranks of corporate, civic and other public leadership roles.

An important first step to express our symbolic commitment to that desire for a transformation of the moral landscape, just as we are transforming our physical landscape, is to build a monument to the region's most distinguished daughter. The statue to Rachel Carson should not be an abstract monument, but an image from her life. It should not be relegated to a leafy spot on the periphery of the city; it should be placed in a prominent central site, perhaps at the Convention Center.

Rachel Carson deserves it. The city and the region need it.

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