When Rachel Carson Went to Johns Hopkins, No One Thought She Was That Smart

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To be honest, I didn’t know that famed environmentalist Rachel Carson had lived in Baltimore and attended Johns Hopkins until I read a contemporary environmentalist’s story of living in Carson’s former house. That’s why it was fun to read Gabriel Popkin’s account of Carson’s time at Hopkins, which (spoiler alert) didn’t go all that well.

Carson went on to write The Sea Around Us (about marine science) and, most famously, The Silent Spring (about pesticides). She’s credited with spurring the environmental movement of the 1960s, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work. But when she was at Hopkins getting a graduate degree in marine biology, her professors found her mildly disappointing. “Miss Carson is a thorough, hard working person, not brilliant, but very capable, and with a good knowledge of biology,” wrote Herbert S. Jennings, the head of her department “She is thoroughly dependable and will continue to be a satisfactory teacher.”

This was the 1920s and 30s; maybe the most impressive career Jennings could imagine for a woman was to be “a satisfactory teacher.” As Popkin notes, while a quarter of the students in Carson’s program were women, the faculty was entirely male. “It’s fun to take a course with about seventy men and one other girl, but stiff!,” Carson wrote to a friend early in her career. Her Hopkins experience included failed experiments, money troubles, and long hours in the lab. When the university raised the tuition by 50 percent from $200 to $300 (the equivalent of a jump from $2800 to $4200 in 2013 dollars), Carson had to switch to taking classes part-time. And while certain professors took note of Carson’s capabilities, the majority of them “commended Carson’s teaching, perhaps sincerely, but perhaps also suggesting by omission that they didn’t expect much from her as a researcher,” Popkin notes.

Well, she sure showed them. Let this be an inspiration for students everywhere — even if your grad school experience is kind of “meh,” you still might end up changing the world.



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