Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2003


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A Natural Biographer

A Natural Biographer
Linda Lear ´62

Linda Lear ’62 vividly recalls first reading about marine biologist and science writer Rachel Carson. She had just graduated from Connecticut College charged with the mission to do good in the world.

She picked up a copy of The Saturday Review and saw on the cover a woman with the same mission: Carson, who had recently bucked the scientific and industrial establishments to illuminate the hazards of pesticides in her book Silent Spring. “Having just graduated from a women’s college, and being a feminist, I admired her,” Lear recalls. “I remember thinking she must be an incredibly courageous human being.”

Lear studied political and religious history in college where, she says, “I fell in love with the life of the mind.” She was influenced by role models like Rosemary Park, then college president and “the smartest, best woman I had ever encountered.” After graduation she headed to Union Theological Seminary but, when she found her passion lay in teaching, crossed the street to Columbia University. There she earned a Ph.D. in political history and experienced, as Carson had, the challenges of encroaching into male-dominated territory.

Lear’s Ph.D. thesis on Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s environmentally progressive secretary of the interior, piqued her interest in ecology. Appointed to the faculty at George Washington University, where she remains today as research professor of environmental history, she taught a survey course in what was then an emerging field. When they got to Rachel Carson, students typically reacted with “Rachel who?” or “So what?” Familiar with the hazards of pesticides, they saw Silent Spring as old news. Trying — and failing — to find a “nice little classroom biography” offering historical context to Carson’s achievements, she set out to write one herself in 1989. As she delved into Carson’s life she unearthed astonishing parallels to her own life. Both grew up near Pittsburgh, witnessing firsthand the effects of industrial pollution. Lear’s grandmother knew Carson’s mother; her high school biology teacher was Carson’s college classmate and friend. Both Lear and Carson worked for the government and, in fact, Carson worked for Harold Ickes during the New Deal era. Lear’s “little biography” grew into the 634-page Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Henry Holt, 1997). Acclaimed as the definitive biography of Carson, it was awarded a History of Science Society prize as the best book on women in science in 1999. Lear donated the book’s manuscripts to Shain Library’s Special Collection in 1998.

Lear is now focused on another environmental crusader: Beatrix Potter. While in London a few years ago, she viewed an art exhibit of Potter’s “incredible mushroom drawings and watercolors.” Potter, like Carson, had wanted a life in science but rechanneled her energies in an era that didn’t encourage women scientists. Lear’s upcoming biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, traces Potter’s efforts to save the English countryside, particularly the Lake District.

All three of Lear’s biographies have sparked in her the challenge to get as close as possible to the truth of a life, knowing, she says, “that you can’t get it completely right.” She never deliberately set out to be a “woman’s biographer” but is simply attracted to reformers. What’s next on her agenda? Lear gasps at the thought of starting a new biography. “When you’re in the middle of one book,” she laughs, “you think, ‘I would be crazy to write another.’” She pauses. “On the other hand, when this one is finished ...”

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