Notable alumna and trustee emerita Linda Lear discussed the legacy and continuing impact of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking work.
The use of the now-banned pesticide DDT was so ubiquitous in the 1950s that families kept bottles of it handy for spraying in rooms and in gardens.
Environmental historian Linda Lear, a graduate of Conn who spoke at the College Wednesday, shared her own memory of trucks driving down neighborhoods and shooting a large mist of the synthetic chemical.
“Children ran behind it in their bathing suits to cool off in the DDT spray,” Lear described during her talk to a packed audience. “And no one thought anything of it.”
The once-prevalent use of DDT and other harmful pesticides has been the focus of a semester-long discussion at Conn centered around Rachel Carson’s 1962 work, Silent Spring. The book raised public awareness to the harm of widespread use of synthetic pesticides on wildlife, humans and the environment, and is credited with inspiring the environmental movement.
Students in the Class of 2020 read Silent Spring over the summer, in preparation for a more in-depth study of Carson’s enduring impact this fall.
Lear is the author of the award-winning biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Lear wrote the introduction of the 50th anniversary edition of Silent Spring.
Lear also wrote, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, a biography of another inspiring conservationist who wrote and illustrated classic children’s books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
In recognition of her achievements advancing scholarship, the College awarded Lear its highest honor, the College Medal, in 2008.
Before the talk, President Katherine Bergeron said the College welcomed Lear, a world-authority on Carson, back on campus “to offer her insight on the life and mind of one of the 20th century’s great female scientists.”
Carson was a conservationist and marine biologist, as well as a gifted writer who raised awareness and a call to action for environmental causes by combining those passions.
“Her challenge grew out of her love of the natural world and the literary talent that she had for sharing it,” Lear said. “She was energized by the enormity of the threat that she saw to what she loved, and to the smug isolation of the Cold War society in which she lived.”
Silent Spring’s publication had an immediate impact that saw the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. The agency banned the use of DDT in 1972.
Lear has helped preserve Carson’s legacy through her writings, and through the establishment of a unique collection at Connecticut College.
In 1998, Lear donated her research archives to the College to establish the Lear-Carson Collection at Shain Library. In 2008, she established the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives at Shain to preserve resources for continued learning and research. Lear also recently established the Linda Lear Special Collections Librarian position to further support the center.
“Many original, hand or typewritten letters and documents are only accessible at Connecticut College,” said Joseph Schroeder, associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program.
Schroeder’s first-year seminar students this fall learned the academic value of the Lear collection firsthand. The students accessed rare documents, including those used by Lear in writing Carson’s biography, to conduct a historical simulation. The students researched and then debated as if they were members of a presidential advisory committee convened by President Kennedy in 1962 to study the use of pesticides—an action brought on by Silent Spring.
“It was a unique experience for the students to use these resources,” Schroeder said about the project and Lear’s talk. “It is important that students have the opportunity to interact with original documents and hear in person from a respected, leading historian about how historical research is conducted.”
Lear’s time at the College included a visit with Schroeder’s class on Thursday to discuss with students their experience preparing the Silent Spring project. By meeting Lear, students also learned that Connecticut College was an early supporter of Carson’s work, which is appropriate because Conn’s Environmental Studies program, founded in 1968 by nationally known ecologists William A. Niering and Richard H. Goodwin, is one of the first in the U.S.
“I appreciated Dr. Lear's passion in speaking so highly about the late Rachel Carson, along with her vast distribution of knowledge,” said Bempa Ashia ’20, one of Schroeder’s students. “Her visit sparked motivation within our class to continue building a bridge to fight for environmental justice in the United States.”
Lear also met with students in Jane Dawson’s course on the environment and government to discuss more current environmental issues. Dawson, the Virginia Eason Weinmann '51 Professor of Government and Environmental Studies, and director of the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, and her students have been discussing the evolution and impact of activism in the west.
In her public talk and in her meeting with students, Lear pushed the need for a continued call for activism, stressing that many of today’s environmental challenges—from climate change to fracking—have echoes of Carson’s work from the past.
“There is absolutely no chance of change unless you love the natural world; know it and want to save it,” Lear said. “Here at Connecticut College, you have a beautiful natural world right outside your doors and windows.”