William Souder at The Loft in Minneapolis Monday night to launch his new book about Rachel Carson.

Fifty years after her famous book "Silent Spring" -- and 48 years after her death from breast cancer at age 56 -- Rachel Carson still sparks controversy.

Minnesota writer William Souder, who has just published his Carson biography, did a call-in show on National Public Radio Monday morning. A caller asked "what do you say about the millions who died in Africa because of Carson's efforts to thwart the fight against malaria?"

Souder, a longtime Twin Cities journalist, talked about Carson at a publication party Monday night for the book, "On A Farther Shore" (Crown). 

First of all, he said, the caller's accusation, a long-running one in conservative circles, was false. Carson was careful to say that while she opposed the indiscriminate use and overuse of such pesticides as DDT, she did not favor an all-out ban on chemical pesticides. Further, while the U.S. did ban domestic use of DDT in the 1970s, partly as a result of her research and writing, it did not ban its export, and the pesticide continued to be manufactured outside the United States for decades. 

A recent story on Slate by Souder offers a fuller account of this aspect of the Carson story.

At the book launch gathering on Monday, Souder showed slides that revealed how popular and widespread the use of DDT became. Its use in the U.S. peaked in 1959, when 80 million pounds of the chemical was applied, in sprays, fogs, dusts and aerosols. One old photo showed a row of suburban lawns being dusted with DDT as shoolchildren ran behind the truck. A magazine ad of the time called DDT "a benefactor for all humanity."

Carson's "Silent Spring," published in 1962, raised the specter of widespread environmental degradation caused by overuse of DDT. The book had a huge impact. It was excerpted in the New Yorker magazine and became an instant bestseller as a book. Souder called its author "the founder of the modern environmental movement."

Carson, who was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was writing "Silent Spring," died two years after its publication.

"Farther Shore" is Souder's third book. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in biography for "Under a Wild Sky," his biography of John James Audubon. He also wrote "A Plague of Frogs." He lives in Grant, Minnesota.

Here is the Star Tribune review of "On a Farther Shore." 


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