Monday, November 25, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part II: Environmentalism

Rachel Carson, 1944
In the previous post about John F. Kennedy's impact on science, we discussed the consequences of Kennedy's push for space exploration and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon.  Another area of science where Kennedy has left a lasting impression is environmentalism and environmental science.  Kennedy helped to raise public awareness of environmental issues as well as the impact of chemicals like pesticides on the environment.  This story involves his interactions with a famous scientist, environmentalist, and science writer, Rachel Carson, who was perhaps the most important environmentalist of the 20th century.

Rachel Carson was originally a marine biologist, but she is most famous as a science writer who wrote excessive pesticide use and its consequences.  Her most important book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and is credited with starting the modern environmentalist movement.

One of the major pesticides discussed in the book was DDT, which stands for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.  DDT had been used to control insects since 1939 and helped prevent the spread of malaria in World War II.  The swiss scientist who discovered its insecticide uses, Paul Hermann Muller, was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1948.  However, the effects of DDT on the environment and on other organisms were never fully studied even though its wide-spread use was adopted.  DDT use was poorly regulated after the war, and it was often used excessively in commercial agriculture in the 1940s and 50s.

In Silent Spring, Carson wrote about evidence that suggested DDT could cause cancer and was thus a threat to other organisms besides insects, including humans.  DDT is particularly dangerous to birds because it can cause metabolic changes resulting in laying of eggs with very thin shells.  These eggs are then often crushed by the weight of the bird sitting on them to warm them.  The title of Carson's book, Silent Spring, was meant to suggest a spring season without the singing of birds, what she envisioned if indiscriminate pesticide use continued.          

The public outcry that resulted from Silent Spring eventually led to the banning of DDT use in the US for agricultural use in the early 1972.  This is thought to be a defining moment of modern environmentalism.  The banning of DDT is probably a major factor in preventing the extinction of both the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.

While Rachel Carson's book jump-started environmentalism, her cause benefited greatly from the help of the Kennedy White House and JFK himself.  Read on to find out more.

WWII soldier applying DDT spray
DDT was originally refered to as the "insect bomb."  People thought it was revolutionary when they discovered it killed many types of insects.  When Carson started studying the effects of DDT on the environment and other animals, she began to collect evidence that DDT and other pesticides were carcinogenic (cancer-causing).  She found a lot of this evidence by studying the work of Wilhelm Hueper at the National Cancer Institute, who discovered that DDT produced liver tumors in some animals.  Today, we know that DDT can indeed cause cancer, birth defects, and diabetes as well as endocrine disruption by acting as an antiandrogen.  However, this was largely unknown in the 1940's, 50's, and 60's.  

Kennedy may very well have been aware of DDT's use as an insecticide from his own experiences in the South Pacific during WWII.  He certainly knew of Rachel Carson's books.  He owned at least two of her earlier books, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea.   These two books were part of a trilogy of books on the ocean that had brought Carson critical and financial sucess.  Kennedy was frequently photographed outdoors enjoying nature.  He had a keen love of the sea and marine life brought about from his childhood experiences on Cape Cod. As a senator, Kennedy has passed legislation to protect sea shores around Cape Cod, and a major issue of his presidential campaign was protecting sea shores from over industrialization and preserving them as wildlife and recreational refuges.      

Not long after Silent Spring was published, Kennedy encouraged the Departments of Agriculture and Public Health to investigate pesticide use in the US.  Many governmental agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, considered Silent Spring to be simply a public relations nuisance that needed to be contained.  However, Kennedy knew that the issue needed to be investigated further, and wanted to know what some of his science advisors thought about it.  On one hand, some environmentalists were saying that all pesticides should be banned, while the Department of Agriculture worried about the impact of pesticide bans on farmers' crop yields and profits while the Department of Commerce worried about the effects of pesticide bans on the chemical industry that produced them.  The chemical industries that made pesticides were also very keen to avoid any reduction in pesticide use. 

Kennedy appreciated Carson's environmental work, and he knew that the chemical industry would vilify Carson to protect their own interests, but at the same time he wasn't entirely sure that Carson's research would hold up under peer review.  He wanted to know the truth about what was really going on with pesticide use and overuse, and decided that his scientific advisors needed to investigate the issue.

Even though Kennedy selected most of his science advisors based on their expertise with nuclear weapons, aerospace, and defense technology, they were nonetheless legitimate scientists, not just political appointees.  While they did not have a lot of experience with environmental issues, Kennedy knew that they would take a look at the data, analyze it, and try to draw unbiased conclusions about what was going on.  One of Kennedy's great strengths was that he surrounded himself with very smart people, and while his scientific advisors were not necessarily environmental experts, they were nonetheless very smart people.

Kennedy set his chief science advisor, Dr. Jerome Wiesner, on to the task of initiating a study of pesticide use and its relationship to human health and the environment.  The Presidential Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) began to talk to researchers on both sides of the issue, and collected data from federal agencies, the World Health Organization, and the British Government.  They created a panel of prominent biomedical researchers to review the data, chaired by Colin MacLeod, a famous molecular biologist from NYU.  Also on the panel was James Watson of Harvard, co-discoverer of DNA.  They even invited Rachel Carson to meet with them and discuss her concerns.  Carson herself was pleased with the seriousness with which the Kennedy White House was taking their investigation, and she spent an entire day talking with the PSAC committee on January 26, 1963.  

As a result of the investgation, Kennedy's PSAC prepared a 1963 report titled Use of Pesticides.  The report supported Carson's conclusions and encouraged major changes in federal policy.  As scientists, the committee recognized that pesticides were an important component of modern farming techniques, but found that the data suggested that the persistent use of the pesticides used at that time, including DDT, were having a detrimental effect on the environment.  They concluded that more federal regulation of pesticides was needed to protect both the environment and human health.  They recognized that pesticide use must continue, but urged a shift in pesticide use toward more selective and less toxic pesticides.  They also called for increased transparency and reporting on safety and toxicity testing for pesticides.  Like Carson's Silent Spring, the PSAC report also emphasized that pesticides were part of a more broad issue: greater care must be taken in all aspects of environmental protection and conservation in the US.

The US Department of Agriculture put up a fierce opposition to the report and tried to prevent it from coming out, saying it was biased and could damage the public's trust in US agricultural methods and agricultural research.  However, the high prestige of the PSAC committee members as well as their scientific expertise meant that such criticisms were not taken seriously.  Had Kennedy not chosen expert scientists from his PSAC to get involved in this issue, it would have been difficult to block the attacks on Carson's conclusions and the PSAC report by those who claimed that pesticides were good because they represented scientific progress.

Other scientists outside of the PSAC as well as Carson herself also did a lot to educate the public about the dangers of pesticide use through television appearances and written editorials.  In April of 1963, Carson and other scientists and government officials appeared in a CBS Reports television episode called "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson."  This program was watched by around 10-15 million people, and had an enormous impact on public opinion.  It illustrated that many of the reassurances that the chemical and agricultural industries were trying to make about the safety of the pesticides in use at the time were based on little or no scientific evidence.  Most importantly, Rachel Carson amazed people by coming off as a rational person who wanted to limit pesticide use, not ban it completely.  Many people were surprised to see that she was not just a crazy alarmist.                

Obviously the driving force behind the DDT ban was Rachel Carson and Silent Spring.  However, without Kennedy's support, we don't know whether or not Silent Spring would have been enough to sway the powerful agricultural and industrial lobbies to give up the rampant use of DDT.  She needed Kennedy's PSAC report to give Silent Spring the "teeth" needed to effect change.  Kennedy influence helped push Congress to pass and enforced new laws.  Obviously, if not for Rachel Carson's book, these issues with DDT and other pesticides would have gone hidden for potentially many more years.  However, one could also argue that Kennedy and his science advisory team were equally important in gaining credibility for Carson as well as making sure that her ideas were translated into real actions.

Text © 2013 TheMadScienceBlog.  Images are public domain. 

Sources and Further Reading

  • "DDT: An Introduction"  Duke University Cruising Chemistry Webpage.  Available here.
  • D. Brinkley.  "Rachel Carson and JFK, an Environmental Tag Team."  Audubon Magazine.  May/June 2012.  Available here.  
  • P.R. Ehrlich, D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye.  "DDT and Birds."  Stanford University.  1988.  Available here.
  • The Library of Congress.  "Consequences of Silent Spring."  Available here.
  • Z. Wang.  "Responding to Silent Spring: Scientists, Popular Science Communication, and Environmental Policy in the Kennedy Years."  Science Communication.  1997.  19:141.  Available here.
  • Z. Wang.  In Sputnick's Shadow: The President's Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America.  Chapter 12.  "Responding to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, 1962-1963."  Rutgers University Press.  2009.  


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