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Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 9 - all chapters at

9. While most pesticide scares never reached the national media, a very public one occurred in 1959. On November 9 the US. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare announced that the herbicide, aminotriazole, which had been shown to cause tumors in lab rats, was found in cranberries produced in the Pacific Northwest.

Erring on the side of caution, most consumers did not buy fresh cranberries, canned cranberry sauce, or any other kind of cranberries for Thanksgiving that year. President Dwight Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie ate apple sauce with their turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

It was a disaster for the cranberry industry.

Rachel Carson took this so-called “cranberry scare” as evidence that Americans were becoming more concerned about the link between pesticide use and cancer. More articles were also beginning to appear in scientific journals and, occasionally, in other periodicals and newspapers describing health problems in areas where chemicals had been used, but it was hard to tell if people took it seriously.

Until now.

The truth was that people took cancer seriously. In the 1950s, a cancer diagnosis sounded like a death sentence to most Americans. Treatments were in their infancy and were not very effective, especially if the cancer had metastasized.

It was significant to Rachel with the cranberry scare that Americans made the connection between the lab rat tumors and aminotrazole. It was an encouraging sign, even though Rachel suspected that these same people were eating and drinking other potentially contaminated products without realizing it, not to mention breathing them in after nuclear tests.

There was a long way to go.

Rachel had experienced her own brush with a potential cancer diagnosis several years earlier. Now, in 1959, as she was delving into how carcinogens were introduced into the environment, she had another incident.

She had developed two masses in her left breast, where the earlier mass had been removed. She hoped that the result would be the same and that minor surgery would once again prove to rid her of the problem, but of course there was no guarantee.

When the surgery was done, one of the masses was deemed “suspicious,” and it was decided to conduct a radical mastectomy. “Man Against the Earth” was already way behind schedule, but no one at Houghton Mifflin or the New Yorker took exception to Rachel’s recovering fully before attacking the book again.

Rachel went to Southport for the summer with Roger, hopeful that a return to nature, as well as to her lovely cottage at the seashore with the Freemans nearby, would help speed her recovery. But she remained weak, and when swelling occurred near her sternum, she went back to see a different specialist, Dr. Barney Crile at the Cleveland Clinic.

Rachel’s heart sank when she heard the diagnosis. It was cancer, and it had metastasized. Dr. Crile recommended an immediate program of radiation treatments.

Rachel was not only devastated by the news; she was angry.

“Why didn’t they tell me when they did the surgery?” she said to Dorothy. “I could have started radiation or chemotherapy months ago.”

“I don’t know, dear. They should have.”

Rachel sighed heavily.

“How will I ever finish my book?”

“You’ll finish it,” Dorothy said confidently. “You’ll finish it, and it’ll be the most important book ever written. You’ll go through your treatments and get healthy again, and your book will change the world. It’ll sell a million copies!” she paused for a second, then corrected herself, “Not just a million. Two million, maybe three!”

Rachel could not help smiling. Dorothy was such an optimist that it was hard not to smile – and not to love her for her optimism.

In her quiet moments, however, Rachel’s spirits sank. Years ago, when she’d had her first minor operation on the lumps in her breast, it was like a meteor passing in the sky – something that grabbed her attention but was soon gone, if not totally forgotten. Her second operation was more serious, but she came out of it feeling like she was on her way to getting healthy again. Another meteor had missed the earth.

Then came the meteor’s direct hit. Dr. Crile’s diagnosis of cancer that had spread and needed treatment immediately had left her feeling powerless against this terrible disease. It did not help that the radiation and chemo treatments drained her of energy and made her nauseous.

All of a sudden, she was fighting for her life against cancer. It seemed so strange – she had been fine just a little while ago. Maybe some aches and pains here and there, but nothing like this.

Not a fatal illness. Not cancer.

Yet here she was.

To add insult to injury, her ulcer flared up again. She also developed what might have been the onset of rheumatoid arthritis.

It felt as if she would never feel good again. She was unable to write, sometimes even to think clearly, and she needed help with Roger from Dorothy and Stan.

Some days, she could hardly get out of bed. Yet she did not give up. She would never give up.

She was determined to get better and determined that she would write again. She had to finish her book.

Even so, it was March 1961 before she began making progress with the book. It was slow at first because she was so weak, but also because there was so much information for her to organize, so many incidents for which details needed to be verified, and so much scientific background to collect. She could not hope to do it all in a week, a month, or maybe even a year.

Still, she plowed ahead, and the more she worked, the better she felt.

In May, when Marie Rodell visited Rachel in Silver Spring, she was amazed to see her looking so well. Rachel was a little thin and walked with a slight limp, but she seemed almost back to her old self and had accomplished a great deal while everyone thought she was still weak and frail.

When she noticed Marie’s look of surprise, Rachel said, “I’m going to finish this book, Marie. The writing is mostly done.”

“I believe you, Rachel.”

They discussed the beginning, and Rachel told Marie that the first chapter would be short, just two or three pages, and it would be a fable. It would describe a town where, all of a sudden, the birds no longer sing and sickness and death have silenced the noises of life.

“I want to call it “Silent Spring,” she explained.

Marie looked at her inquisitively.

“You want to call that chapter “Silent Spring”?

“Yes,” Rachel replied, noticing her expression. “Why, don’t you like it?”

“I do. I like it a lot. In fact, I think it would be a great title for the whole book.”

Rachel straightened up in her chair and gave Marie a conspiratorial look.

“I never really liked ‘Man Against the World,’ she admitted.

“I don’t think anybody did.”

When Marie left, she took all the pages Rachel had produced, as well as their idea for a new title. She told Paul Brooks and William Shawn, who were thrilled with the chapters Marie delivered. They not only agreed with the new title, they began the search for illustrators to enhance the writing, which Shawn said made science into literature.

The publication of Silent Spring was on the horizon.


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