Good lecture this Thursday: “Women as Public Scientists in the Atomic Age: Charlotte Auerbach, Rachel Carson, and Genetics”

November 10, 2016
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM
Westfall Lecture

Marsha Richmond
History Department, Wayne State

With the onset of the atomic age in 1945, geneticists increasingly spoke out about how nuclear fallout and radiation impacted heredity and reproduction. By the 1960s others began to draw attention to how another post-war chemical—the pesticide DDT—might impact the hereditary future of mankind. Scholarship discussing post-World War II scientific activism focuses almost exclusively on males, without little attention paid to women who served as public scientists or the impact gender may have played in gaining public trust and influencing policy makers.

This paper examines two women, both trained in genetics, who became activists in the 1950s and 1960s to educate the public about the dangers radiation and wartime chemicals posed to the human germ plasm. In Genetics in the Atomic Age (1956), Charlotte Auerbach (1899-1994) described basic genetic principles to explain why radiation-induced mutations induced could be harmful. In Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson (1907-1964) drew on genetics to warn about the possible mutagenic properties of DDT that could cause cancer and other health problems. Both women fostered scientific literacy to empower an informed citizenry that would be able to influence public policy. Auerbach and Carson appealed to men as well as women, but particularly focused on appealing to the growing cadre of middle-class educated women.