Science Asides: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Still Speaks Its Truth

As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area.

Without fail, each Earth Day brings mention of Rachel Carson’s most famous work of nonfiction, Silent Spring1—a book renowned for its role in forwarding the modern environmental preservation/conservation movements. Although published more than 50 years ago, this book, meant to raise awareness about the dangers of pesticides and herbicides commonly used in the early 1960s, continues to resonate with readers today. There is good reason for this continued interest. While one might reasonably expect a book discussing such a serious topic to be a dry but dire treatise, Carson surprises with her eloquence, her clear but never tiresome description of scientific knowledge, and her passionate reproofs of shortsighted policies.2 And while our worries for this world may have changed (and indeed may have worsened), many of her concerns remain relevant.

Water must also be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports— from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas to the fishes that strain plankton from the water and are in turn eaten by other fishes or by birds, mink, raccoons— in an endless cyclic transfer of materials from life to life.

Scientific Interpreter

To discuss impact of pesticide and herbicide usage, Carson needed to dispel the notion that such chemicals found in household products and applied to lawns, gardens, fields, and forest were “safe”, an impression conveyed by the manufacturers and government agencies alike. Carson, therefore, had to educate her audience about how ecosystems function, how chemicals agents operate and spread through various environments into others, and how exposed species (both human and non-human) were affected. She happened to be ideally suited for this task. Science and writing were Carson’s twin passions, and she utilized both professionally at US Bureau of Fisheries (later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and when writing for the Baltimore Sun. She eventually transitioned to writing about science full time, publishing articles in the Atlantic and The New Yorker as well as bestselling nonfiction books about maritime species and environments. With this experience, she painstakingly (but never condescendingly) translated the technical scientific data underwriting her contentions into the crisp prose seen in Silent Spring.1, 3, 4 Indeed, one of the achievements of Silent Spring is that it serves as an excellent layperson’s primer for environmental studies.

How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?

Grim Revelations

The picture Carson paints, beginning with the imaginative exercise of small town suffering from an ecological devastation to the actual places suffering devastating drops in beneficial insects such as wild pollinators,5 bird, fish, and other animal populations—not to mention pet and human life—is a disturbing one. As Carson readily points out, most pesticides and herbicides do not solely target the intended pest but harm all life in the area. Pesticides either infiltrate ecosystem food chains and the surrounding soil and waterways, indirectly poisoning or killing other living beings. These chemicals, shown to persist long after application, continue to do damage as they chemically alter and/or combine with other pesticides used, potentially magnifying their destructive capacity. And the damage continues into the next generation, as reduced reproductive capacity is also seen among exposed creatures.

Science Asides: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring Still Speaks Its Truth. Text by Rita E. Gould
Among the species of bird affected by pesticides that Rachel Carson mentions in Silent Spring were robins, the herald of spring.

While this may seem like a regrettable necessity to protect crops or to decide between protecting trees or birds (to use her example), Carson reveals that the benefits of pesticides are remarkably short lived as they require repeats applications, often with increasingly deadlier pesticides since the surviving pest insects are immune to previously applied pesticides. Instead of eliminating pests, a pesticide-resistant species is bred. To further illustrate the futility of this exercise, Carson describes several, more effective methods for controlling pest species (both plant and insect), among them employing less broadly toxic and safer pesticides (eg, pyrethrin), using appropriate fungicides, selective (versus blanket) spraying, introducing predator species, and increasing biodiversity; she also points to promising approaches in development. Not content to count the loss in terms of life and beauty, Carson also points out the dramatic costs involved with using chemical versus the usually less expensive, more successful alternatives she suggested. She is also quick to add another economic cost associated with destroying natural habitats: tourism is negatively affected by blighted vegetation and dying birds and fish.

The key to a healthy plant or animal community lies in what the British ecologist Charles Elton calls “the conservation of variety.” What is happening now is in large part a result of the biological unsophistication of past generations. Even a generation ago no one knew that to fill large areas with a single species of tree was to invite disaster. And so whole towns lined their streets and dotted their parks with elms, and today the elms die and so do the birds.

Lyrical Writer, Passionate Defender of Nature

Although Carson’s book focuses heavily on the damage wrought by indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide usage, readers can readily discover passages describing the beauty of the natural world she loved throughout her text. Her imaginary small town that “lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields” evokes numerous rural places found throughout the United States (Carson 1). Her description of the western grebe is similarly vivid:

the western grebe…is a bird of spectacular appearance and beguiling habits, building its floating nests in shallow lakes of western United States and Canada. It is called the “swan grebe” with reason, for it glides with scarcely a ripple across the lake surface, the body riding low, white neck and shining black head held high. The newly hatched chick is clothed in soft gray down; in only a few hours it takes to the water and rides on the back of the father or mother, nestled under the parental wing coverts (Carson 47).

Carson’s compelling imagery enchants, just as the juxtaposition of dead animals (the western grebe were decimated by DDD [a chemical cousin of DDT] in the 1950s) and wasted swaths of vegetation shock. When we witness this beauty and contrast it with the results of indiscriminate pesticide and herbicide use—agents that often cause much harm with few results—it’s easy to understand why Carson felt compelled to speak for the wild places and their inhabitants.6

The Continuing Call

As biographer Linda Lear notes, “Silent Spring compels each generation to reevaluate its relationship to the natural world.”3 It also reminds us that we are very much part of that natural world, which means the decisions we make for nature our ones we make for ourselves and future generations. It’s difficult to read Carson’s words and disregard the potential for harm we may do, should we not heed her call.

Read More

Interested in reading more works by women writing about nature and the environment? Check out this list on Goodreads featuring women writing about the environment and nature.



  1. I used this copy of Silent Spring as my primary resource: Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Kindle ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. 
  2. At points, such reproofs are savage. She purposefully defines eradication to make the point that a government agency’s multiple “eradications” of gypsy moth are in fact glaring signs of pesticide failure: “Eradication” means the complete and final extinction or extermination of a species throughout its range. Yet as successive programs have failed, the Department has found it necessary to speak of second or third “eradications” of the same species in the same area (Carson 157–8). 
  3. Lear, Linda “Introduction.” In: Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Kindle ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. 
  4. Lepore, Jill. “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson.” The New Yorker, 26 Mar. 2018,
  5. Carson’s mention of potential damage done to pollinators such as bees recalls recent concerns about neonicotinoids, insecticides which are thought to cause colony collapse. The European Union recently banned these chemicals. 
  6. Popova, Maria. “The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power”. Brain Pickings, 

Why I’m Reading Women Writers for Women’s History Month and Beyond

For Women’s History Month, I originally planned to list works by women I want to read this month. I intended to point out that the reason I’ve been focusing on reading more women writers,1 as I discussed in my post about Reading Women Month, is that women writers lack representation.2 However, I thought this might be an opportunity to discuss how reading more women actually benefits us, given how women’s representation and issues have come to the forefront over the last year (#metoo and #TimesUp movements, to name two). Reading gives us the chance to self-educate, to learn more about issues that affect us as well as access experiences that aren’t ours. Reading a good book highlights problems women face, such as the wage gap by discussing its roots or revealing the true cost of all that unpaid labor women perform (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal, trans. Saskia Vogel).3 Reading more written by women lets us discover the unsung women who made important contributions to this world, such as the black female mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race (Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly). And being informed about women’s contributions to society as well their issues often empowers action. Which takes me full circle to Women’s History Month. One book I intend to read, Woman in the Nineteenth Century,4 inspired the women who went off do something about suffrage in the United States. While another nonfiction work focuses on a funny woman (Bossypants by Tina Fey) succeeding in a field notoriously hostile to women, others are works of fiction I’ve heard good things about and wanted to read—books that in their own way that will expose to me women’s voices. In addition, my daily reading involves targeted online zines (eg, Everyday Feminism) that keeps me current with the latest issues women face, certainly something I’ll continue to do this month.5 Regardless of the format, I intend to keep reading women throughout the year, because we deserve to be heard and celebrated.


  1. We also should work on reading inclusively, because more belongs on our shelves than works written by white, straight cisgendered individuals. 
  2. Moreover, even women characters lack representation
  3. IFL Science, helmed by Elise Andrews, published Women Scientists You Need to Know on this International Women’s Day. Also in the “hidden history” category is Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks, which discusses the life of Henrietta Slack, the woman whose cancer cells taken without permission led to countless scientific breakthroughs and raised serious questions about medical ethics. 
  4. And yes, it is book that I said held the record for being on my to-be read list the longest. I promised to read it this year, and there’s no time like the present. 
  5. Recently, EF addressed women’s unpaid emotional labor with update on etiquette by Alice Williams: New Etiquette Rules for Women—Without the Sexism This Time

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce the English-speaking world to a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text by Rita E. Gould
Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843.

In The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf seeks to reintroduce to the English-speaking world a once famed but largely forgotten figure who shaped how we view nature: Alexander von Humboldt.[*] Prior to Humboldt’s scientific exploration of South America, western society largely assumed nature behaved much like a complex machine that was, for the most part, stable and unchanging. Many believed that nature existed for humanity’s use, and some even argued, as French naturalist George Louis de LeClerc (Comte de Buffon) did, that wilderness was a wasteland that required civilizing. No one, as Wulf emphasizes, concerned themselves with the possibility that nature could be damaged or destroyed. However, Humboldt’s observations in South America (then a colony of the Spanish Crown) led him to a very different conclusion.[†]

The “Web of Life”

While in South America, Humboldt intended to collect plant and animal specimens and record empiric data (eg, air and water temperature) as most naturalists did. However, the Prussian-born polymath had an additional aspiration: he wanted to see how natural forces worked in concert. Seeking a “big picture” view of nature, Humboldt’s approach was interdisciplinary and incorporated aspects of art, philosophy, poetry, history and politics. Humboldt’s choice to be inclusive and to compare across disciplines was unique, given that most scientific studies tended towards specialization and excluded the arts. His study of nature was not merely intellectual but also embraced emotional responses to the natural world.

With this “global view”, Humboldt’s radically revised the way in which nature was perceived. Far from the faithful machine depicted by René Descartes and others, Humboldt realized that nature was a delicately balanced “web of life”, one that human could tear asunder. While at Lake Valencia, Humboldt discovered that clear cutting a forest for cash crops yielded barren fields, a dried up river, and soil erosion. The first to recognize forests’ ecological role (ie, cooling effect, retention of water and soil), Humboldt would warn against irresponsible farming and mining practices. Thus, he became a forerunner of the environmental movement.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photo credit: Jeremy S. Henderson.
Nature writer, preservationist, and Sierra Club founder John Muir was among those whom Humboldt inspired. As an activist, Muir campaigned to designate several areas (eg, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon) as national parks. (Photo of sequoias in Muir Woods Monument. Credit: Jeremy S. Henderson.)

Widespread Influence

In writing about Humboldt, Wulf seeks to illuminate the reach of his influence from his time to ours. She describes contemporary scientists whose careers were supported, launched, or even inspired by Humboldt, among them Charles Darwin. Humboldt’s prominence in the scientific community (she refers to him as its “nexus”) existed alongside his ardent support for the free exchange of ideas and democracy.[‡]  In South America, he witnessed the horrors of slavery and the abuses visited on the indigenous people whose ancient cultures were destroyed. His writings condemn slavery and challenge the supposed savagery of indigenous peoples. Símon Bolívar met Humboldt in Paris and found in Humboldt someone who admired his homeland and shared his disgust with Spanish colonial rule; their conversations would lead Bolívar to consider the possibility of revolution. Humboldt’s vision of nature and popular publications resonated with writers such as English Romantic poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wadsworth; poets Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman; American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; and nature writers such as John Muir. Wulf also devotes several chapters to disciples of Humboldt who carried on his legacy.

Hidden Scientific History: How Humboldt Shaped Our View of Nature. Text and photo by Rita E. Gould
Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden, was heavily influenced by Humboldt’s writings, in particular his book Visions of Nature. (Walden Pond. Credit: Rita E. Gould.)

Humboldt’s Legacy

Wulf’s admiration for Humboldt is both deserved and contagious. Discovering the “hidden” history behind concepts I studied in my undergrad science courses was exciting:[§] I had no idea that adventurous undertakings such as mountain climbing led to vegetation and climate zones, let alone who was responsible for this new way of categorizing plants. And as someone with a degree in literature and one in with environmental studies, reading about Humboldt was fascinating as I saw names from two very disciplines intermingle, whether they influenced him (eg, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Immanuel Kant) or he inspired them (eg, Darwin, Thoreau, Muir). It truly is amazing to see how interdisciplinary knowledge unites to change the world. And it’s perhaps for this reason that Wulf hopes to restore Humboldt to his former prominence. As we now face human-precipitated climatic changes he once warned against, the interdisciplinary approaches he used will likely be needed. According to Wulf, Humboldt may well be the inspirational figure to guide us through these difficult times.


[*] Wulf posits that Humboldt’s ideas potentially were so self-evident that his contributions was forgotten but considers the anti-Germany sentiment following the outbreak of World War I as a more likely cause.

[†] An earthquake that occurred not long after Humboldt’s arrival left him shaken as it forever dispelled the notion that nature was static.

[‡] Some considered his acceptance of a pension from the Prussian monarchy hypocritical, while Humboldt looked at it more pragmatically: he could not pursue his academic studies without financial support. He did attempt to use his position to positively influence the monarchy and would successfully ensure that all slave who entered Prussia would be freed immediately. Humboldt’s commitment to democracy also meant he was bitterly disappointed when the unification of Germany led to another monarchy in place of the federation he favored.

[§] And nowhere near as awkward as the time I realized my knowledge of the scientific method did not extend to its lengthy history.

Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women

The timing of Angela Saini’s recently published book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story,[*] seems almost prescient following the publication of the Google memo. Once again, science has been invoked to demonstrate that inequalities between men and women exist because of biological difference instead of lingering prejudices about women’s capability. But, as Saini cautions us, such science isn’t without its biases[†] nor is there necessarily consensus on these findings. In Inferior, Saini seeks to provide insights into controversial studies and theories existing in several scientific disciplines that intimate or have claimed that huge biological gaps exist—ones reinforcing damaging stereotypes—and the new research challenging these findings, even when the facts don’t readily dispel such stereotypes.

Evolving Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Darwin assumed men drove evolution but newer studies focus on how evolutionary forces affected women, dispelling notions of female passivity, inferiority, and even chastity.

When they do, however, the results can be quite eye opening. Among the disciplines that Saini investigates, evolutionary biology has greatly altered its view of women, in no small part due to women scientists. Charles Darwin argued that the pressure only men experienced to obtain mates drove evolution, cementing male superiority to women in every way. Men became hunters, while women, passively engaged in childcare, evolved only because they inherited some of their father’s better qualities. For Darwin, men’s preeminence in all fields proved his point.[‡] Recent studies of increasingly rare modern hunter–gatherer groups, however, reveal cultures where men are caregivers and women are hunters, disputing the idea that such roles are predestined. Indeed, scrutinizing these populations (not to mention animal populations[§]) also contradicts the notion that females are universally monogamous.

Contentious Science

Sciences Asides: Getting Women Right: Science’s Evolving View on Women. Text by Rita E. Gould
Among the cases where “facts are greyer” than people find comfortable, testosterone appears to produce small behavioral sex differences.

However, some areas of study still are poorly understood and others hotly debated. Notably, the role of sex hormones (responsible for sexual development and reproduction) remains less clear. Once thought to be the agents that made men masculine (testosterone) and women feminine (estrogen and progesterone), it’s now understood that these hormones are produced by the gonads of both males and females, albeit in differing amounts. While this discovery dismissed the view that masculinity and femininity were opposites, lingering questions about how these hormones interact within our bodies and affect our minds remain. The theory that sex hormones create significant differences between the brains of male and female fetuses, predisposing them to certain roles, is among the more controversial topics. However, it’s important to recall that the roles of culture and child rearing cannot be ruled out in such cases. And while “small behavioral sex differences” associated with testosterone have been demonstrated in young children (72), most studies tend to show more overlap than difference in typical child development.

Inferior serves as a much-needed corrective to assumptions that science provides clear, objective evidence that significant differences exist between women and men. As science strives to gain a clearer picture of women, it’s more than apparent that women are far from inferior. Indeed, the theme of humanity’s plasticity runs throughout Inferior, suggesting that men and women have more in common than not. And that, indeed, is a great discovery.


[*] Saini, Angela. Inferior: how science got women wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story. Beacon Press, 2017.

[†] Saini observes that the biases that kept women from participating work likely prejudiced science’s objectivity. Women in science, regardless of how underrepresented they are due to social disparities (ranging from childcare to gender bias and sexual harassment), has influenced how science is performed, with new ideas being considered and old ones challenged, very often by women scientist. (10).

[‡] Saini argues here (and elsewhere when disputing how the Google memo got the science wrong) that Darwin was hardly the only man of his time to conflate structural inequality with biological differences (14–8).

[§] That’s not to say all species engage in promiscuous behavior, just that it’s incorrect to assume that all females are monogamous (136–7).

The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race

Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

Hidden Figures tells the story of the women who performed the behind-the-scenes work that propelled American aviation triumphs during World War II and Space Age rocketeering. Author Margot Lee Shetterly focuses on a particular group of pioneering women working at NACA/NASA,[*] the African-American women who overcame barriers imposed by both their gender and their race. Called computers, they were mathematicians whose work entailed calculating complex equations for the engineers engaged in the then emerging field of aeronautics.

The Call to Serve

The first female computing pool, then all white, formed due to necessity. Prior to 1935, the male (usually white) engineers performed their own calculations, a tedious task that slowed their research. Historian Beverly E. Golemba notes that “Because of the male shortage and the added attractiveness of paying women less, they rather reluctantly began to hire women as computers.” Despite their qualms, these white women soon proved themselves equal—and better—at the task. Although they earned less than male counterparts despite possessing equivalent bachelor degrees,[†] NACA still paid better than teaching did and permitted them to continue working long after marriage and the arrival of children.

The demand for human computers soon outstripped the supply of qualified white women available. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pressured by black labor union leader A. Philip Randolph’s threat to march on Washington, signed an executive order that desegregated the defense industry and made it possible for black women to become computers. Although advertisements for black computers were more discreet during this segregated era, they nonetheless attracted the attention of Dorothy Vaughn (the first black female supervisor) in 1943,[‡] one of the three computers Shetterly’s book features. Cold War concerns kept NACA’s Langley Research Center (located in Hampton, Virginia) retaining and continuing to hire more computers to process the vast data produced by the research conducted there.

The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race. Text by R. Gould
The Friden calculator was one of machines that human computers once used to perform complex calculations.

Calculating Times of Change

As Shetterly follows Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson (famed for calculating flight trajectories of the Mercury and Apollo space missions) through the highlights of their careers into the late 1960s, she also performs the daunting task of capturing a cross-section of the eras in which these women worked. Moving from World War II to the Cold War and Space Race accompanied by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, she laces her narrative with layperson discussions of aeronautical innovations. Shetterly, too, describes the complex calculations (Johnson’s figures are compared to a symphony) while underscoring the human cost of miscalculations: loss of life. At times, one wishes for more biographical and less technical detail, but the perspective is critical for understanding her subject’s work. Shetterly correctly observes that it’s important to learn about the computers who worked at NACA/NASA and document their work—all while recording the obstacles these black women overcame.

Among the book’s poignant moments, Shetterly recounts Katherine Johnson’s[§] journey to Langley from West Virginia in 1953. Once her bus entered Virginia, she entered a segregated state; she and other black passengers were required to move to the bus’s back. Later, they all had to disembark as the bus would not travel through the black part of town. Johnson ignored segregation and gender-based discrimination when she could, unafraid to use a white only bathroom or ask why she, a female computer, could not attend the Space Task Force editorial meetings with the male engineers.

Mary Jackson, a Virginia native and Hampton local hired in 1951, discussed her frustration with unequal work conditions to an engineer who responded with an invitation to join his team; this move launched her career as the first female black engineer. To attain that rank, however, she needed special permission to go to classes at the segregated local high school she’d unable to attend as a teen. The school, which she expected to be superior to the one she matriculated from, was dilapidated: the full cost of segregated school systems was fewer and worse resources for all.

“What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured” were Dorothy Vaughn’s words to Golemba about her time at Langley. Disappointed that she did not again attain a management position after NASA integrated its staff in 1958, she launched many careers during her time as a supervisor (Katherine Johnson’s included).[**] Vaughn soon observed that computing machines would gain ascendancy, and she made it imperative that she and other human computers learn how to code them, thus making themselves indispensable to NASA. And it would be Johnson’s calculations that would confirm the accuracy of the new machines, giving NASA (not to mention astronaut John Glenn) confidence in the machine’s calculations.

Finally, Zeroing on Hidden Figures

When reading about these women’s accomplishments and considering how often the Space Race has been memorialized, it seems shocking that we didn’t know these women’s names earlier. Of the many computers named in Hidden Figures (both black and white), I only knew of Katherine Johnson beforehand. Shetterly acknowledges, as other authors do, the role that the women’s modesty played. She also adds that many people did know about the work these women undertook (particularly in Hampton, which happens to be the author’s hometown). Yet, this knowledge remained unseen by the public. As Shetterly indicated in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “…I think that it really does have to do with us…not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.”

Shetterly’s remarks here are hardly controversial: women’s work (particularly domestic) long has been undervalued and unappreciated. Writing Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race provides this much needed corrective accounting. Both black and white computers’ contributions alike were forgotten while white men they worked alongside were lauded. As reporter Virginia Biggins explained during a panel that discussed the role of human computers, she “just assumed they were all secretaries”. Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.


[*] Respectively, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)

[†] Golemba’s unpublished report indicated most computers pursued mathematical degrees because it was a subject at which they excelled in high school and that most intended to use the degree as part of a teaching career.

[‡] Shetterly discusses other black computers and their careers where appropriate but the book’s scope does not permit spending much time with them. However, her ongoing project, The Human Computer project, strives to capture the history of the women who served as computers.

[§] Katherine Johnson was then Katherine Goble, as her first husband was still alive.

[**] Although Shetterly focuses mostly on black women, she also exposes the gender-based struggles white women encountered where appropriate. When Dorothy Vaughn intervened on Katherine Johnson’s behalf and helped her obtain a permanent position (and promotion) to a team where she’d been temporarily assigned, Vaughn also helped a white computer gain the same appointment. Not having anyone to forward her cause, her request to join the team would otherwise been ignored.

Science Asides: Ethics in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Recently, I chanced upon an Atlas Obscura article discussing lördagsgodis, the Swedish tradition of indulging in candy on Saturdays. What drew my attention, however, was that title mentioned “human experimentation”. As it happens, lördagsgodis’s roots can be traced to experiments performed on mentally ill patients during the mid- to late 1940s that established sugar’s role in cavity formation. The study, which neither benefited its patients (quite the opposite) nor obtained their consent, was not unique to Sweden.[*] In fact, its ethical issues suggested those raised in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the tale of an African-American woman whose cells, collected without her permission in 1951, led to profound scientific discoveries. Given how deeply this nonfictional account delves into medical ethics, politics, racism, and scientific discovery as they intertwine with the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, I will focus on the more poignant moments that exemplify these issues.

History, Ethics, and Human Experimentation

As author Rebecca Skloot observes, patients of US public wards often were unaware that they served as research subjects, something some researchers considered to be an acceptable trade for receiving treatment (29–30). Such patients, particularly impoverished, poorly educated African-American patients living in the pre—Civil Rights era in the United States were unlikely to ask questions: the presumption that physicians “knew best” coupled with widespread racism alone prevented such a thing (Skloot 63). And before the advent of Institutional Review Boards in 1966 (Sparks 2017),[†] research involving human participants did not receive much formal oversight (Skloot 131, 136). What happened to Henrietta Lacks, specifically taking her cancer cells without her knowledge or consent, was both the norm however unpalatable we might find it.

For Henrietta, there were more personal consequences related to the treatment that permitted her cells to be collected. Johns Hopkins, the hospital where Henrietta was treated, standardly informed women of childbearing years that hysterectomy led to infertility—one of the rare instances where patients did receive adequate information from physicians in this book. And yet this did not happen in Henrietta’s case. Her records revealed that she would have refused treatment had she known (Skloot 47–8). And although she would not have lived long enough to bear another child (Skloot 86), the choice should have been hers. The tissue sample collected from this hysterectomy, however, continued to grow long past its expected life: the discovery of an immortal line of human cells had been found (Skloot 40–1).

Science Asides: Ethics in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Text by Rita E. GouldAmazing Discoveries and Uncomfortable Juxtapositions

The importance of Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa) to scientific research is vast. For example, HeLa played a large role in proving that Salk’s polio vaccine worked—and it was African-American scientists and technicians who produced the massive quantities of HeLa cells needed to do so (Skloot 93–7). Yet this achievement also represents one of the most painful juxtapositions in The Immortal Life: the HeLa factory was located at The Tuskegee Institute, a place better known for its infamous syphilis study involving African-American men.[‡] The terrible disparity between HeLa’s role in saving the lives of so many people—regardless of their racial background—and the unnecessary deaths of African-American people is more shocking when you consider that twelve of the Tuskegee study participant’s children still receive benefits (CDC 2017).

Disclosure and Family Distress

Not long after Henrietta was identified as the HeLa “donor” in the early 1970s, the Lacks family discovered that her cells were still alive, a revelation they did not understand and found alarming (Skloot 173, 175–81). Further interactions with researchers did little to improve their understanding. When researchers obtained blood samples from Henrietta’s family to establish genetic markers for HeLa, the Lacks family thought they were being tested for cancer (Skloot 180–4). More alarmingly, the resulting study published Henrietta’s name with her genetic information (Skloot 197–8). And more medical information was revealed about Henrietta without consulting the Lacks family. In the 1980s, her medical records were published, something which caused immense grief for Henrietta’s daughter, as Deborah read intimate details about her mother’s diagnosis and the anguish she suffered before her death (Skloot 209–10). Other family members, however, were angered by the profits made by biomedical companies while their family remained impoverished and could not afford health insurance (Skloot 168, 193).

Thoughtfulness and Modern Ethics

And this is perhaps the most concerning theme that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals: thoughtlessness. Mary Kubicek was an assistant who was sent to collect tissue samples during Henrietta’s autopsy in 1951. Unaccustomed to dealing with dead bodies, she focused her gaze away from Henrietta’s eyes. Then, she noticed Henrietta’s painted toenails and realized that Henrietta was an actual person, not just a collection of cells. It was something she had not considered before. It’s astonishing how many researchers (most but not all of whom were white) echoed this refrain and never thought about whether patients and/or their families might have concerns, even after ethical standards were changed. And this best represents what was most needed here, for researchers to think of Henrietta Lacks as a human with rights instead of as HeLa’s source. To think of all patients involved in research as people first.

* * *

Originally, I intended to end where the book does, with the emphasis on the need to see patients as people instead of mere study subjects. Instead, I discovered something of an unpleasant (if unsurprising) postscript: the Lacks family again needed to protest the public distribution of information about Henrietta. In 2013, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published the genome of a line of HeLa cells to an online database that allowed public downloads of this data. Although no laws were broken (Callaway 2013), it seems the researchers did not consider the ethical implications of making genetic data  publicly available that could be potentially reveal private information about Henrietta’s family (Skloot 2013). The database subsequently was removed and the National Institutes of Health, who also planned to publish a similar paper, established a review board (that includes two of Henrietta’s family members) to determine who will gain access to this genetic information in the future (Zimmer 2013). While this hopefully will provide Henrietta’s family with much needed closure on this topic, questions remain about how geneticists should handle such sensitive data for other patients.

What response did you have to Henrietta’s story? Share it below in the comment section. Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.


[*] Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, resided at a facility for mentally ill patients where medical experiments were carried out on the African-American patients living there, again without consent. She likely was a study subject. She died in 1955 (Skloot 274–6).

[†] HeLa also played a role in the formation of these boards. The discovery that researcher Chester Southam had been injecting HeLa cells into patients (roughly half of whom were diagnosed with cancer) without disclosure and consent caused a scandal that prompted the National Institutes of Health to create these boards (Skloot 127–36).

[‡] This study’s notoriety primarily stems from (but is not limited to) the fact that researchers purposefully withheld treatment from patients afflicted with syphilis long after a cure was developed in 1947. Ultimately, most patients died terribly, with many having infected both wives and children (Skloot 50, “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” 2017, CDC 2017).

Works Cited

Callaway, Ewen. “HeLa Publication Brews Bioethical Storm.” Nature (2013): n. pag.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

“Tuskegee syphilis experiment.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Glasser, Hana. “An Adorable Swedish Tradition Has Its Roots in Human Experimentation.” Atlas Obscura. N.p., 04 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011.

Skloot, Rebecca. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.

Sparks, Joel. Timeline of Laws Related to the Protection of Human Subjects. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

Zimmer, Carl. Zimmer, Carl. “A Family Consents to a Medical Gift, 62 Years Later.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017.

“Hidden Science” in the Writings of Franklin & Conan Doyle

Men of method: Franklin and Conan Doyle

Benjamin Franklin. By Joseph Duplessi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It was my first year of graduate studies, and I found myself re-reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Some time had passed since I read this book in depth,[*] but certain portions remained clear enough in my mind, including Franklin’s ambitious and tongue-in-cheek project to acquire virtues in Part II.[†] As I read through this section, I felt a growing sense of familiarity that was related less to the content and more to the structure of the writing. Franklin’s project followed a pattern that I’d become familiar with while pursuing that other undergraduate degree:[‡] scientific methodology. Reading Part II of The Autobiography was not unlike reading a scientific paper: there was a section on the background and the project’s goal (“moral Perfection”; Franklin 1383), defined terminology, methods delineated (working on acquiring a single virtue on a weekly basis and recording instances of success/failure); results presented and discussed, and a conclusion or two (Franklin 1383–91), ranging from “I think I like a speckled Ax best” (Franklin 1390) to:

But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it (Franklin 1391).

Obviously, the project to acquire virtue wasn’t, per se, a scientific experiment, but it bore the hallmarks of one.

Elated that I observed something I previously hadn’t noticed, I wrote my short paper for the upcoming class with a reference to my discovery and mentioned it during my brief presentation. I, however, did not expect to be asked which approach to the scientific method had Franklin favored. My professor posed an excellent question, considering that the 17th and 18th century scientific thinkers were in the process of disputing more ancient methods (namely, Aristotelian) for deriving facts (Weinberg 201-14).[§] I, however, knew more about applying the basics of scientific methodology than its history.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo by Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Curiously, though, this experience—that is, the feeling I’d come across a familiar format— recurred when I re-read A Study in Scarlet for a recent post. Again, I felt as though I was reading about Sherlock Holmes conducting a scientific study in which he carefully observed the crime scene’s grounds (Conan Doyle 23–4), collected data (measurements at the murder site as well as examination of the murder victims; Conan Doyle 26, 29, 56–7), and even tested his theory that the first murder victims was poisoned (Conan Doyle 58–9). But, there it was: a sort of literary déjà vu featuring the scientific method. While I’m sure I understood that Holmes was both methodical and logical in his approach to detection, I doubt I noted the specific scientific underpinnings in Holmesian detective fiction when I was reading the stories in my early teens. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would have considered independently when I was intent on consuming as many mystery novels as I could. And I certainly didn’t have the same ability to read critically as I do now.

Of course, detecting  the presence of scientific ideas in the writings of scientific men (Franklin, a scientist and inventor, and Conan Doyle, a medical doctor) isn’t unexpected, particularly with two individuals whom share the distinction of forwarding scientific study. Conan Doyle’s fiction anticipated the usage of methods that would become central in forensic sciences (eg, preserving footprints, protecting the crime scene from contamination)[††] and inspired forensic science pioneers like Edmond Locard (Steenberg 35).[‡‡] In Franklin’s case, the study of electricity benefited greatly from his attention to it (Chaplin), to put it mildly. Nonetheless, uncovering these connections between very different people writing for very different purposes was satisfying. I wouldn’t go so far to claim that I’ve seen further than some, but perhaps further than I once did.[§§] And I do feel a bit like a sleuth for detecting evidence of scientific thought.

Have you experience literary déjà vu or found some interesting scientific ideas in unexpected texts? Share your experiences below! Also,  sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.


[*] High school to be exact.

[†] Spoiler: It’s my favorite part.

[‡] For the curious, I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and one in Environmental Studies.

[§] Numerous sources discuss this critical change in scientific thinking, including the one I cite here (as a physicist, he brings an interesting perspective to exploring this history ). The scientific methodology has a long history and, of course, will continue to evolve as scientific discoveries and thought require it to do so. The link I provide depicts a concise timeline of important known events, dates, and person contributing to this evolution.

[**] Based on my limited research, I’d (tentatively) go with Francis Bacon. Franklin already was familiar with the self-improvement plans of notable intellectuals, including Bacon who was likely the most influential (Lemay 39). Considering that Bacon favored experiments to establish facts (empiricism), I think this dovetails neatly with Franklin’s process here. Oh, and not having an answer didn’t have any negative consequences for my classwork; it was just embarrassing.

[††]  Holmes use of footprint evidence seems amazingly prescient when you consider the SoleMate database of shoe prints.

[‡‡] He apparently encouraged his students to read Holmes stories.

[§§] I’m cheekily referencing Newton’s famous quote: “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Works Cited

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private.” Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography. In: Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987. Print.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. The life of Benjamin Franklin: printer and publisher, 1730–1747. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Steenberg, Lindsay. Forensic science in contemporary American popular culture: gender, crime, and science. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Weinberg, Steven. To explain the world: the discovery of modern science. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.