June 27 2012 12:00 AM

MSU exhibit looks back at author/environmentalist Rachel Carson

Some books change the way you think; others change the way you look at the world around you. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, not only profoundly changed the way we think about our relationship with the natural world, it helped launch the modern environmental movement.

The Library of Congress recently released a list of more than 80 “Books That Shaped America,” and tucked among literary giants like “The Catcher in the Rye” and Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was “Silent Spring.”

“Echoes of Silent Spring: 50 Years of Environmental Awareness,” an exhibit at Michigan State University’s Natural Science and Culture Museum, provides the context for the landmark book. It also shows how research conducted at Michigan State University in the 1950s detailing the impact of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) spraying on birds played a large role in why Carson wrote “Silent Spring.”

MSU Museum director Gary Morgan said it is easy to “be aghast,” but that the exhibit helps us understand the era. He said the purpose of the exhibit wasn’t to elevate Carson or to vilify her critics, but rather to show our relationship with nature.

The director — who is also a marine and fresh water biologist — said the exhibit follows a timeline showing how a post-World War II America openly embraced technology and then gradually began to understand how it could have deleterious effects on the environment. 

Two small but powerful examples in the exhibit define that love affair: Cute ads for the DDT product Flit, created by Theodor Geisel of Dr. Seuss fame, show how Lorax-like cartoons helped sell the product to an unsuspecting public, and a 1948 Life magazine photo showing swimsuit model Kay Heffernon engulfed in a DDT fog on the beach — while eating a hot dog and sipping a Coke — helped portray the chemical as harmless.

Whether it was dispensed from little Black Flag hand-sprayers in home gardens or giant, robot-like Rotomist sprayers, the 1950s saw America — and MSU’s campus — awash with DDT, which had been used extensively in World War II to control body lice and malaria. 

On the MSU campus the chemical was used not only for mosquito control, but also to kill the elm bark beetle, which spread the Dutch elm disease that decimated majestic elm trees on campus. 

Assisted by his students, MSU professor and ornithologist George Wallace studied dead and dying birds on campus to learn what was killing them. Archival footage shows birds in the throes of severe tremors flopping about on the ground. These stark images provide a chilling contrast to scenes of smiling workers spraying DDT, without any protective equipment.

Among the birds most impacted by the spraying was Michigan’s state bird: The robin, along with the bald eagle, became a symbol for the destructiveness of DDT. Tests on the birds by Wallace showed elevated levels of DDT, which led him to believe the chemical was the culprit.

Defenders of the chemical alleged that the birds were dying from mercury exposure. Nearly 50 years later, the MSU Museum and the School of Veterinary Medicine conducted a “cold case” study using several robins that had been preserved from the earlier study. Morgan said the cold case results confirmed that the birds still contained elevated levels of DDT and that there was no mercury present. Morgan said there are areas on campus in which the soil still shows elevated levels of DDT.

The exhibit shows how later research determined that the concentration of DDT in leaves and the resulting mulch led to fat, juicy earthworms. Robins that ate dozens of earthworms daily ingested DDT and transferred it to their offspring. Morgan said that at one time researchers could not find any evidence of successful breeding of robins on campus.

The exhibit also showcases how Carson and, to some extent, Wallace came under attack from the petro-chemical industry, which attempted to label Carson’s research as junk science, saying she lacked the credentials to make such strong accusations. Carson was often labeled as hysterical, and gender-based slurs were used to discount her research. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture jumped in to attack her and the book.

Morgan said the exhibit is a fair look at the problem of balancing the use of a chemical that was remarkable in controlling typhus against its long-term impact on the environment. He said today more than 1 million people a year still die from malaria and that debates are still raging about the use of DDT.

Even Carson said in “Silent Spring,” “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used.” However, Carson went on to say that we must be cautious about using poisonous chemicals, especially by “persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”

A collection of 28 letters exchanged between Carson and Wallace over an six-year period was an important impetus for creating the exhibit. Several of the letters are highlighted in the exhibit.

In the first letter Wallace sent to Carson, he commends her for working on a book on insecticides, even though the research is not conclusive.

He makes a point in the letter that is as important today as it was when he wrote it in 1958: “Twenty years from now, when we have more complete information, will be 30 years too late.”

'Echoes of Silent Spring: 50 Years of Environmental Awareness'
Through Dec. 30

Heritage Gallery

Michigan State University Museum

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday


(517) 355-2370