On Earth Day, celebrate Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary

Jianguo "Jack" Liu holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and serves as director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

April 20, 2012

Fifty years have passed since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book many credit with sparking the environmental movement -- and an anniversary worth celebrating on Earth Day, April 22.

The book has deep connections to Michigan State University, from the late MSU ornithologist George Wallace’s research that was featured prominently in the book to the establishment of the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and a legacy of environmental science research being conducted today.

Before Carson’s book, DDT was touted as a cure-all pesticide suitable for solving many of the world’s problems, including eliminating malarial mosquitoes, the beetles responsible for spreading Dutch elm disease and even treating lice on humans. To protect the stately elms that lined MSU’s campus, the university, like many other institutions and municipalities, used DDT liberally, employing misters to treat the trees.

Silent Spring, which is ranked No. 2 on New York University’s Top 100 Works of Journalism, is widely credited for opening the world’s eyes to the negative effects of many pesticides and helped lead to the banning of DDT in the United States in 1972, said Gary Morgan, director of the MSU Museum. In May, the museum will feature the exhibit, “The Echoes of Silent Spring,” that will look at the impacts and legacy of the book, the MSU connections, the first showing of recently discovered correspondence between Wallace and Carson, specimens of birds affected by pesticide use, archival film footage and more.

Wallace gave Silent Spring the living -- and dying -- imagery of flocks of terminal robins. His research showed that the unwitting birds, after feasting on DDT-filled worms, suffered seizures and died. He and his students collected dead and dying robins from campus and the surrounding area. Richard Snider, then student now MSU zoology professor, remembers gathering samples for Wallace. (The MSU Museum has a number of these robins preserved in its collection.)

“When I came to MSU, I was a bright-eyed freshman, a bit naïve to what the world had to offer,” he said. “From working with George Wallace, I began to understand the importance of examining the impact of chemicals and pesticides on the environment, so much so that I changed my area of study to soil biology, dealing with insects as indicators of the soil’s health.”

Wallace’s work and MSU’s legacy of environmental research is what attracted Thomas Dietz, MSU assistant vice president for environmental research and member of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, to the East Lansing campus. Playing a prominent role as a leading climate-change researcher, Dietz understands researching a controversial subject in the face of zealous detractors.

“Her book, and others published at that time, transformed my interest from being purely scientific to a mix of science with the intent of providing good advice for policy,” said Dietz. “Sadly, people attacked her personally and questioned her motives, as opposed to debating the science on which the book was based. It’s a sad pattern we still see today where, rather than work to come up with creative solutions related to climate change, the messengers are often bullied and attacked.”

He admires the work of Wallace, Carson and other scientists who conduct their research despite scathing attacks, and in some cases, even death threats, Dietz added.

Jianguo "Jack" Liu, who holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and serves as director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, remembers reading Silent Spring in college.

“Rachel Carson was a pioneer, and her work inspired me,” said Liu, who still has a first edition of Silent Spring. “As the first Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, I am honored to continue her legacy especially knowing the scrutiny she faced as a result of the book.”

Liu, after publishing a paper in Science, came under similar fire when he demonstrated that a world-famous giant panda reserve in China was not protecting the country’s iconic wildlife as intended.

“It took a long time for the government and many others to understand all of the issues involved,” said Liu. “But I am glad that there have been many positive changes -- the co-author of the Science paper is the director of the reserve, several important policy changes have been implemented and the panda habitat has been improving.”

The research of Liu and Dietz is supported by MSU AgBioResearch.