Gentle Subversives: Rachel Carson and Frances Oldham Kelsey

Yesterday I used the theme “Meeting of Minds”to focus on the US Congress and its hearing with Al Gore. Today, I would like to play this out one step further, and suggest how the members of the Congressional committees that are responsible for environmental issues and legislation might be informed by two great minds, each of whom received Presidential Awards for their contributions to government and society. These two great minds are Rachel Carson and Frances Kelsey.

Rachel Louise Carson (27 May 1907 – 14 April 1964) was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-born zoologist and marine biologist whose landmark book, Silent Spring, is often credited with having launched the global environmental movement. Silent Spring had an immense effect in the United States, where it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Frances Oldham Kelsey, most famous as the reviewer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who refused to authorize thalidomide for market because she had concerns about the drug’s safety. Her concerns proved to be justified when it was proven that thalidomide caused birth defects. Kelsey’s career intersected with the passage of laws strengthening the FDA’s oversight of pharmaceuticals. As a result of her efforts to prevent the approval of thalidomide, Kelsey was awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy,becoming the second woman to receive that award.

When I watched the hearings yesterday in Washington I knew that Al Gore was the wrong person to be presenting ideas about climate change, not withstanding the enormous work he has done in the service of the environment for more than 30 years. However, he is polarizing, and the media uses critics’ sound bites to drown out any contribution he might make. Gore also tends to be an alarmist, and suggests solutions that are too far from the center to rally the kind of support that is needed in the US Congress for any action to occur. All you have to do is listen to the oil and gas lobbyists’ Senatorial cheerleader, James Inhoe, and you will see how easy it for critics to set Gore aside.

Today I was thinking who could come before the Congress and get our Congressional representatives to listen. Who? Someone of likes of Rachel Carson or Frances Kelsey. They were each contemporaries. They each worked for the Federal government. They were pioneers in their respective fields, of biology and pharmacology. And they bucked the system in the 1950s and 1960s that was male dominated, and that did not look favorably upon anyone that questioned the relationship between big business and human health concerns.

Rachel Carson, the subject of a new book by Mark Hamilton Lytle, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. Although Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring was not published until 1962, she first became aware of the problem the relationship between DDT and other insecticides on human health. Her courageous writing in Silent Spring brought the issue to the public, and to the Federal government. She was invited to meet with President Kennedy’s Science and Technology Committee. Even though the bio-chemical industry tried to subvert Carson’s work, she was quickly vindicated of any of the criticisms being leveled by this industry, and the US Congress went on to pass legislation banning DDT. Carson had started the environmental movement.

Impacting Rachel Carson while she was writing Silent Spring was another scientist, Dr. Francis Kelsey. Kelsey worked for the FDA, and refused to allow the drug Kevedon (thalidomide) from being marketed in the US unless more research was done. The pharmaceutical company (Merrill) brought pressure to the FDA, and tried to by-pass inspector Kelsey’s reports. Kelsey stood her ground, and refused to allow the drug into the American market. Sometime later the world was shocked by the horrifying birth defects caused by the drug taken by pregnant women. She became a hero. More importantly, it gave Carson the courage to continue with her work.

Each of these gentle subversives made ground-breaking contributions to society, not only in the USA, but in the world. Kelsey retired recently at age 90 from the FDA after 45 years of service. Rachel Carson died very young at age 57.

Who would you suggest as the gentle subversive that could speak about the issue of climate change, and the human impact on the environment in such a way that not only would influence the American people, but members of Congress?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University