WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH – Marine Biologist Rachel Carson, one of “The Paradigm Shifters” of Science

Marine Biologist Rachel Carson, one of

“The Paradigm Shifters” of Science [1]

Abdu'l-Baha in 1912

In 1912 a Middle Eastern traveler to the United States by the name of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made some farsighted pronouncements concerning the role of women. He had spent his life mentoring both Eastern and Western women to achieve their full capacities and render great services to humanity. In a talk in Boston, Massachusetts, he specifically encouraged women to “devote their energies and abilities toward the industrial and agricultural sciences” and seek to assist humankind “in that which is most needful.”[2]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s thesis was that women could bring a unique dimension to these fields, due to qualities of character in which they excel. Among these qualities are intuition and receptiveness, mental alertness, “abundance of mercy and sympathy,” concern for “the needy and suffering,” and “greater moral courage.” [3]

A survey of the contributions women have made in some of these fields reveals women scientists who have, indeed, exemplified qualities in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says women excel. When entering previously male-dominated fields they have evinced ground-breaking influence not only by their accomplishments but also by methods and motivations that contrasted those of previous practitioners.

Greater Moral Courage in Moments of Danger

Abdu’l-Bahá says moral courage is yet another quality in which women excel: “The woman has greater moral courage than the man; she has also special gifts which enable her to govern in moments of danger and crisis.”[1]

Marine biologist Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, an ecologist and the mother of the modern environmental movement, was known for her great moral courage. A highly successful marine biologist and writer, she spent her career with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. She is credited with having sounded the alarm in 1962 when the widespread use of chemical pesticides in agriculture threatened the ecological chain. [2]

When a friend called her to witness the wholesale killing of birds and harmless insects that had taken place in her private bird sanctuary as a result of the state’s spraying with DDT (under its mosquito control program), Carson responded by publishing Silent Spring. Because she realized there were no government agencies at the time dedicated to the preservation of the natural environment, Carson felt the issue called for a changed political philosophy. She gathered evidence from scientists in America and Europe on “not only the dangers of DDT but also other chemicals with which modern man was poisoning earth, air and water on a worldwide scale. She was questioning “not only the indiscriminate use of poisons but also the basic irresponsibility of an industrialized, technical society toward the natural world.”[3]

Carson in Congressional hearings

Silent Spring was violently attacked by the agricultural chemical industry, which viewed Carson’s assertions as a public-relations problem. They spent enormous sums of money to ridicule both the author and her book.  Crippled by arthritis and suffering from bone cancer as she completed the book, Carson, nevertheless, defended her premise and, until her death in 1964, played an important role in the initial steps toward legislative action to limit the use of pesticides.

A unique set of factors contributed to Carson’s insight: she challenged the notion that science belongs in a “separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life.” She “was not ashamed of her emotional response to the forces of nature” and “felt a spiritual closeness to the individual creatures about whom she wrote.”[4]  Her moral courage may have, indeed, awakened humankind in a moment of danger and crisis, steering it away from environmental destruction and toward a path of greater ecological responsibility.


[1] Abdu’l-Bahá, Abdu’l-Baha in London 103.

[2] See Paul Brooks, Rachel Carson, Notable American Women: The Modern Period, ed. Barbara Sicherman etal. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, Belkriap Press, 1980) 138-41. For a more complete description of Carson’s work, see Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton, 1962).

[3] Brooks, “Rachel Carson,” Notable American Women 140.

[4] Brooks, “Rachel Carson,” Notable American Women 140.


Stay tuned for more during WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH. This was Part 4 of 5 from Science in the Hands of Women – The Paradigm Shifters

Also check out my novel about a working scientist, Maddie Hawkins, and see what kinds of trouble she gets herself into.


About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at rheaharmsen.com
This entry was posted in agriculture, bahai, educators, equality, female professors, food security, genetic engineering, Jane Goodall, national discussion, Paradigm shift, science and religion, social justice, technology, Uncategorized, women in science, women's history and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s