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Feature: The Robins of MSU

  • Author:
    Gary Morgan
  • Published:
    Winter 2012

A half century ago, George Wallace—and the robins—of MSU helped inspire Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, arguably the most important book in the 20th century.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. British author L.P. Hartley opens his famous novel, The Go-Between, with these lines. We might think that they could have no truer application than in comparing society’s attitudes towards the environment today to what they were 50 years ago.

And 50 years ago, the world received one of the seminal books of the 20th century. In September 1962, Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring some months after it had been serialized in the New Yorker. The book caused an immediate conflagration. It divided readers into two camps—those who eulogized it for its revelations, and those who condemned it as hysterical, poorly researched or just bad science.

What was the furor all about? Silent Spring was the first major popular publication that documented the effects of incautious or excessive use of pesticides on the natural environment, and in some cases, on the health of livestock and even humans. In its 355 pages, the book lists hundreds of studies where pesticide use was implicated in unintentional negative effects on living organisms or was shown to have become less effective in controlling target pests over time. Critics raised doubts about her use of scientific data and the justification of her conclusions.Some called her a liar. Carson was a university-trained biologist who had worked for many years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, yet there were those who cast aspersions on the ability of a woman to write on such weighty matters, the world of science in the 1960s being dominated by men. The majority of the public, however, received the book with acclaim. It opened the eyes of many and confirmed the suspicions of others.

Among the many case studies in her book, none occupies more space or imagery than that of the dying robins of Michigan State University.In this story, the fates of Carson, the reluctant “environmental warrior,” and of an MSU faculty ornithologist, converged. It was Professor George Wallace of MSU who documented the dying birds on campus, of which the robins were a significant proportion. He and his students collected birds from MSU and surrounding suburbs in the late 1950s.The birds were found either dead or dying from tremors. The scientists carried out tests on many of the birds’ carcasses, and in most cases found elevated levels of the pesticide DDT.

It was this study as described in Silent Spring, arguably more than any other, that publicly raised the specter of the possible adverse impacts of one of the most widely used pesticides of the 1950s. These results were rejected by some, who suggested no causal relationship with DDT, or that other toxins such as mercury used to control soil fungi were the cause of the birds’ deaths. There remains some controversy even to the present day, but most scientists now recognize DDT and many other insect-focused pesticides as having significant risks to other living organisms.

In the 1950s, the world had emerged from World War II to rebuild itself on the back of new industrialization and technology. America was affluent and confident, having established itself as the dominant economic power in the world. The cars of Detroit were getting ever bigger, and their fins and chrome ever more extravagant. Economies were becoming global, and success was founded on industry. Where humans faced challenges, we would prevail through our ability to devise new technologies. Nowhere was that faith held more profoundly than in The development and use of chemicals in industry and in environmental management. The variety and quantities of human-made chemicals in common use exploded. Of the many, DDT is one of the best known, and possibly the most infamous.

DDT (or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), is a synthetic organochlorine.DDT was synthesized in 1874 but its properties as a pesticide were not recognized until 1939. It was used in World War II as an effective control of malarial mosquitoes and typhus-carrying body lice.A Swiss chemist, Paul Hermann Müller, won the 1948 Nobel Prize in medicine for revealing the effectiveness of DDT against insect pests that were carriers of disease.

DDT kills insects by over-activating their nerve cells or neurons, causing the insect to go into spasms and then die. By the 1950s, the effectiveness of DDT as a pesticide had resulted in its ever growing application, often in large scale and rather indiscriminate fashion. It could be used as a dust or, once dissolved in petroleum oils, xylene or other organic solvents, as a spray. At the same time, there was growing evidence that DDT and other toxins could enter the food chains and be concentrated in organisms ranging from earth worms to birds and mammals. Rachel Carson mentions many pesticides in Silent Spring, but for her, DDT was the poster child of the chemical industry—heavily promoted, over-used and under-appreciated for its ecological effects.

Insects have shown considerable capacity to develop resistance to DDT and other pesticides. It starts when a few individuals in an insect population have a certain genetic mutation that gives resistance to the effects of the toxin. These individuals survive the treatment, breed, and convey the resistant gene to their offspring, and thus the percentage of resistant individuals continues to grow. After many generations, most of the population may be resistant. Widespread use of DDT in agriculture is one reason that insects such as mosquitoes built up resistance to the toxin. Still, there are those who argue that DDT remains one of the best control agents for major insect pests such as anopheline mosquitoes, the vectors of malaria which continues to kill approximately a million people around the world each year.

Carson was not the first to raise concerns about the potential deleterious impacts of pesticides. In the 1940s and 1950s, many scientists were expressing their views that caution was warranted. We see this clearly in the 1952 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Yearbook, which cautioned:

“Although the science of entomology has made great progress in the past two decades, the problems caused by insects seem to be bigger than ever. We have more insect pests, although we have better insecticides to use against them and better ways to fight them . . . We must stop the destruction of our crops and forests, but the insecticides we use must leave no dangerous residues on foods, destroy no beneficial wildlife, and do no damage to our soils.

“We thought we had some of the problems solved when we got such good results from the new insecticides. DDT … made medical history in 1943 and 1944 when an outbreak of typhus in Naples was controlled in a few weeks by its use. Entomologists hoped then that DDT could end all insect-borne diseases and even eradicate the house fly. In less than a decade, however, DDT was found to be a failure against the body louse in Korea, and the specter of typhus hung over that area. DDT and the insecticides substituted for it failed to Control mosquitoes in some places. In 1952 the house fly was no longer controlled in many places by any of the residual-type insecticides in use, and it seemed likely that other pests (those of agricultural, as well as medical, importance) in time would develop resistance.” The above was written by Charles F. Brannan, then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 10 years before the publication of Silent Spring. It could have been written by Rachel Carson herself. Indeed, here is what she did write in Silent Spring:

“It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”

Of course, history is not a story written in black and white; history is a spectrum of greys. The use of DDT at MSU—and elsewhere in Lansing in the late 1950s—was prompted by a devastating plant killer, Dutch Elm disease. At that time, MSU had over 2,000 elms, glorious features of a bucolic campus. Dutch Elm disease is caused by a fungus, which in turn is spread by the Elm Bark Beetle that burrows through the bark and moves from tree to tree. DDT was being used to kill the beetles, in the hope of restricting the spread of the disease and controlling the loss of some of the most beautiful trees of America.

Unfortunately as Wallace found, the DDT did not just kill the beetles. The poison remained on the leaves of the elms, which dropped in fall to become compost in the soil. Some of the poison probably fell directly onto the soil during spraying.Soil and compost were ingested by earthworms, and the worms were eaten by robins and other birds. As we now know, many chemicals can bio-accumulate. This means that they do not break down quickly and can become more concentrated within organisms as they move up the food chain. So a little DDT in an earthworm can become a lot when a robin eats hundreds of earthworms in a day. Wallace and his students recorded over 80 species of birds, with various feeding modes, showing symptoms of poisoning. In the years that followed the publication of Silent Spring, other impacts of pesticides like DDT became better recognized.

The research of Wallace and others showed that DDT could be conveyed from birds to their off spring still in the egg. Another related and catastrophic result was the reduction in the thickness of bird eggshells, most evident in upper level predators such as birds of prey. Populations of American raptors such as the Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle plummeted as the birds failed to rear young. America was at risk of losing its heraldic avian symbol.

We know this now, but today we are a different country, right? What Silent Spring achieved in 1962 was to take the debate to the greater audience of people across the United States and around the world. It became a best seller, and Carson became something of a symbol for a growing grass-roots movement of citizens concerned about their environment, and about the health of their families. Many regard Silent Spring as spawning the modern environmental movement.

There is another poignant story to this real-life drama. While finalizing her book about the death of so many natural things so dear to her, Rachel Carson was also dying. Cancer would take her life at age 56 on April 16, 1964, less than two years aft er the publication of Silent Spring.She would live long enough to see the tide of public opinion turn solidly against over-application of toxins in the environment, and the wheels of government begin turning to tighten the controls on pesticide use. She would not see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, an organization dubbed, “the extended shadow of Silent Spring.” Nor would she see the banning of DDT in the USA in 1972.

George Wallace would see more of the impacts of Carson’s book.Wallace worked at MSU until 1972 and died in 1986 at age 79. In 2009, a small metal box containing some of his papers was donated to the MSU Museum by his family. The museum staff discovered 28 letters between Rachel Carson and George Wallace. The letters document a correspondence over six years, revealing great respect and warmth.On October 2,1958, in his first letter to Carson, Wallace writes: “I am happy to learn that you are working on a book on insecticides.It is something that needs doing badly . . . And, in spite of the unfortunate lack of really conclusive data, it needs doing now. Twenty years from now, when we have more complete information, will be thirty years too late.”

In the series of letters, Carson inquires aft er details of Wallace’s work and Wallace responds promptly with both results and updates of research in progress. Aft er a yearlong lapse from September 1960 to October 1961, their correspondence continues on October 8, 1961, when Carson writes to Wallace:

“I hope you can forgive me when I explain that a long and quite severe illness set in shortly aft er that (the last letter), with the result that for a long period I did no work and wrote no letters.”

Carson deliberated for some time over a suitable title for the book. In a letter of April 14, 1962, Wallace writes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

“Somehow I liked the earlier title . . . ‘Man Against Nature?’ better than ‘Silent Spring.’ In spite of seven years of spraying, our campus is hardly silent. We have an abundance of quite vociferous grackles, starlings, house sparrows, domestic pigeons and semi-domesticated mallards.”

Soon aft er that, Silent Spring would change the way people saw their world.

Carson and Wallace maintained their correspondence aft er the release of the book, until a few months before her death. In what may be the last letter between the two (January 23, 1964), discussing some recent field experiments at MSU comparing effects of DDT and another treatment for Dutch Elm disease, methoxychlor, Carson writes to Wallace:

“ . . . A lot of these things seem to me an attempt to impress the public with activities whereas actually what is being done is pretty meaningless.On the whole, however, I agree with you that some of the recent activities do represent progress and certainly the awakened public opinion is a good thing.”

The 1950s and early 1960s were a time when technology was sincerely believed by many to be a panacea for most, if not all, of the challenges facing humanity. Silent Spring dented that faith, and also reminded us of our common heritage with the Earth and all ecosystems on it.As much as anything, Rachel Carson observed that we are not above nature, but are a part of it, that our future is intimately linked with the futures of the waters, the air, the plants and the animals all around us.

Today we face other challenges. The debate on global climate change can be as rancorous and polarizing now as the debate over pesticides was in the early 1960s. Again, though, we hear from some commentators that science and technology will “solve” our dilemma, that we need not be embracing significant changes in our ecological impact as our scientists will save the day. And we hear the voices that question the place of the EPA – Carson’s legacy – in restricting “necessary” industrial development.Is the past such a different country aft er all?

Gary Morgan is director of the MSU Museum. A marine and fr eshwater biologist by training, he studied the biogeography of crustacean faunas in Australia, New Guinea and the Indo-West Pacific region. He now leads MSU’s museum of natural science and culture.


In May 2012, the MSU Museum will open an exhibit on the story and legacy of Silent Spring, including specimens of the robins collected by Wallace and his students on the campus of MSU. Check out the Silent Spring walking trail that connects campus spots where events happened Relevant to the book.

The MSU Museum will feature Dying to be Heard, a 30-minute documentary based on the story of Wallace and his robins produced in 2007 by MSU s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

Each year, the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and Dept. of Fisheries and Wildlife stage the Rachel Carson Lecture Series about global environmental challenges. The MSU Department of Zoology offers an annual George J. Wallace and Martha C. Wallace Endowed Scholarship Award for graduate students in ornithology.


Since George Wallace’s seminal work, MSU has continued to lead in environmental education and research. Some milestones:

1978: The Center for Environmental Toxicology (now Center for Integrative Toxicology) is created to help Michigan deal with environmental contamination issues and to establish a multidisciplinary Ph.D. program.

1980: The National Science Foundation establishes the Long-Term Environmental Research Program at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station. The program develops sustainable techniques for row crop agriculture as part of a national network of ecology research.

1994: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation creates the nation’s first endowed chair in environmental journalism at MSU.The chair heads the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, which offers various academic options.

2006: The MSU Land Policy Institute is founded, dedicated to carrying out a statewide mission to provide a better quality of life through science-based solutions that help to bolster the economy and better protect the environment.

2008: MSU signs a Water Resource Partnership with the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality. Using MSU’s engineering research and work at the Institute of Water Research, the partnership aims to develop GIS technologies to map, model and visualize groundwater research, as well as outreach and water resources management.

2009: The Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept. celebrates its 100-year commitment to engineering education and research in hydrology and water resources, and environmental, structural and pavement engineering.

2010: MSU’s curriculum adds a specialization in sustainability, offered through multiple colleges. The program provides a unique, hands-on approach to learning about sustainability.

Compiled by Liz Pacheco, news writer for the Environmental Science and Policy Program.