Silent Spring – a cautionary tale

Writing last week, I referenced the cutting edge nature of Science I discovered on entry to the University of Leicester.  The degree was a BSc in Combined Science, in the end focussing on Ecology, Microbiology, Psychology and Sociology. I arrived at University at a time when environmentalist activity was relatively new, and specific celebrations in 1972 were focussed on the banning of pesticides.

This prohibition arose from the research work of Rachel Louise Carson, the American-born marine biologist and writer, best known for her 1962 book Silent Spring, which is credited with launching the global contemporary environmental movement – read more below from the Independent newspaper 3 July.

52 years on, and we face a similar crisis, with Bees for similar reasons, and additionally in that parallel universe of Medicine, with the growing  resistance of microbes to antibiotics.  As David Cameron made clear yesterday in announcing a review of why so little work has been done to launch new antibiotics in recent years, “The world could soon be cast back into the dark ages of medicine unless action is taken to tackle the growing threat of resistance to antibiotics”.

At the educational level, we know that warnings of this kind can inspire children to take up the challenge, to become scientists and researchers into History. Children need heroes, and those of the past such as Carson and Fleming are readily superseded by David Attenborough and Brian Cox, who might not be famous for their science, but have made science intelligible once again the the masses.

Science literacy in schools is not developed by reading books alone, but through extensive practical activity so that children gain the investigative skills to research into the unknown.  Joining up subjects such that Historians and Scientists alike (Y9) can understand how we gained initially an understanding of germ theory, how we created sanitation and focussed our communities on the importance of public health really does capture the imagination.

Isn’t it a pity that David Cameron is so alive to the issue that he makes it national news, yet his government also authorises the decoupling of diverse practical science experiments from A level examinations. Education’s Michael Gove states that these changes will ‘correct the pernicious damage of dumbing down’. Of course, Mr Gove hasn’t heeded the opinion of scientists on this,  nor reflected on the traditions of UK education that have included such practical laboratory assessments since before he was born.

And what kind of school will continue to offer major practical activities at A level despite its sidelining? Why the independent Sector of course, because we don’t just study subjects to pass exams, but to inspire, inform and develop students such that they see the potential of science and other practical subjects as future careers. Just as my first extract came from the Independent, so does my last, alerted as I was by today’s (Thursday 3 July 2014) lead editorial (not on-line), bemoaning the growing gulf between the earnings of those educated at independent schools (such as Claires Court), and those in state schools, as reported by the Social Market Foundation.  Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust, another campaigning organisation on education wrote in the report’s forward of“a sense of outrage at the waste of talent in Britain” over the class divide in schools.

I can’t do anything about government choices, or calm such outrage, but I can continue to guarantee that children will enjoy a practical history and science (and everything else) hands-on education at Claires Court. It is from such experiences that the future generations of our historic and scientific heroes will come.

And as if by magic, the Eureka project report back on the combined experiment shared between Claires Court and their project on Mars.


Silent Spring focused on the impact of synthetic pesticides on the environment – with the title referring to the absence of birdsong across swathes of agricultural landscape following the widespread introduction of pesticides and other intensive farming practices. The book sparked a public outcry, bringing to widespread attention the effects of these chemicals both on the ecosystem and on human health. Although her research was attacked by chemical companies, a decade after her book was published, and years after her death, her book led to a nationwide ban of DDT, a colourless and crystalline organochloride with insecticidal properties, and other pesticides. 

Silent Spring demonstrated that these pesticides could cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly to birds.  A worldwide ban on DDT’s agricultural use was formalised under the Stockholm Convention, but its limited use in disease vector control continues to this day and remains controversial.

Carson died on 14 April 1964, aged 56, of a heart attack having had breast cancer for many years. (From the Independent 3 July).

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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