Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America

Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America

Copyright Date: 1974
Pages: 302
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and Public Health in Pre-DDT America
    Book Description:

    Modern consumers are well aware that the food they eat is tainted by pesticidal residues; they are less aware that their great-grandparents faced the same hazard. James C. Whorton's history of this public health menace emphasizes that insecticides have been contaminating produce since the introduction of chemical pesticides in the 1860s.

    The book examines the period before the publication of Rachel Carson's famousSilent Spring, tracing the origins of the residue problem and exploring the complicated network of interest groups that formed around the issue. The author shows how economic necessities, technological limitations, and pressures on regulatory agencies have brought us to "our present dilemma of seemingly having to poison our food in order to protect it."

    In Part I, the agricultural and medical literature of the past century is used to analyze the emergence by 1920 of a public health danger of serious proportions. Part II draws heavily on the unpublished records of the Food and Drug Administration to document how the ineffective handling of this danger established precedents for present pesticide abuses.

    Originally published in 1975.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7180-3
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  4. Part One: Recognition

    • 1 The Insect Emergency
      (pp. 3-35)

      Farmers have always lived at the mercy of the Nature they hope to exploit, determined to rule the land yet subject to the vagaries of soil and sun, wind, and rain, to sudden outbreaks of crop diseases, to unpredictable invasions of insects and other pests. The complaint of the prairie farmer above was provoked by the terrible potato blight of the 1840s, but it might have been directed with even greater accuracy at the plagues of the following decades, at the insect ravages that were to level not only potato fields, but to truly vex farmers everywhere.

      Insect depredations were...

    • 2 The Lingering Dram
      (pp. 36-67)

      Bierce’s Talent for disguising serious criticism as facetious poesy extended even to the realm of toxicology. Included among the noteworthy attitudes of his contemporaries in late nineteenth-century America was a strange ambivalence toward arsenic: a healthy fear of the most infamous of poisons was accompanied by a perverse willingness to accept it into the household in a variety of forms. Indeed, in some cases, arsenic was even eagerly welcomed and, in eating the poison, it will become apparent, Bierce’s heroine was following the dictate of fashion as well as the advice of her husband. This confusion over the effects of...

    • 3 “Spray, O Spray”
      (pp. 68-92)

      This bit of foreign advice, provoked by American agriculture’s lack of restraint in the application of arsenical insecticides, might just as easily have been offered twenty-five years later. It would have been equally pertinent then, and the fact that at either date it would have been unsolicited is some indication of the nonchalance that allowed insecticide residues to achieve the proportions of a serious public health threat in the United States. The occasion for the early British warning that Americans were heading for trouble was a brief controversy initiated by England’sHorticultural Times.In 1891, this popular journal announced that...

  5. Part Two: Regulation

    • 4 Regulatory Prelude
      (pp. 95-132)

      In his grammatically involuted way, William C. Woodward, Health Commissioner of the City of Boston, thus introduced federal public health officials to the existence of a hazard from sprayed produce. It was a hazard that had been suspected for some time by a few people with interests in public health, but that had not been accorded official recognition until the Boston inspector’s confiscation of the tainted pears. The inspector’s Health Department had subsequently not only instituted a program of inspection of all pears and apples in the city’s markets, but had also relayed word of its action to the United...

    • 5 Regulatory Perplexities
      (pp. 133-175)

      The radiogram of November 16 broke the news that was to cause so much anxiety for American apple growers during the last weeks of 1925 and the first months of 1926. Great Britain, one of the major markets for America’s surplus fruit, had again been offended by American apples. Late in the nineteenth century, it will be recalled, the British agricultural press had charged that apples imported from the United States regularly arrived with a powdery coating of arsenic and were deadly. But as no cases of serious poisoning from foreign fruit were authenticated, the furor soon subsided.

      In October...

    • 6 Regulatory Publicity
      (pp. 176-211)

      The chemical artificiality of the modern industrial environment, and the dangers this portended, was a subject that began to attract considerable medical comment during the 1920s. The voice of Dr. Vogel was but one of many raised in protest during these years against the growing contamination of man’s surroundings with toxic metals. Arsenic and lead drew most of this fire, both because they were among the most dangerous metallic poisons, and because each was being dumped into the environment from so many sources. Although few wallpapers still contained arsenic, Vogel did find the poison generally present in smelter exhaust gases,...

    • 7 “No Longer a Hazard”
      (pp. 212-247)

      The best possible solution to the spray-residue problem had always been obvious. Even before lead arsenate was introduced in the 1890s, entomologists had hoped that organic pesticides, such as pyrethrum, might be perfected as replacements for Paris green and London purple. The expectations for pyrethrum proved overly sanguine, but the desirability of an insecticide as effective and as inexpensive as arsenic, without that poison’s toxicity to higher animals, remained clear. As uneasiness about arsenical residues resurfaced during the 1920s, the demand for new insecticides also assumed a new intensity. In the same year that the Hunt Committee advised the government...

  6. Epilogue
    (pp. 248-256)

    Roseate expectation flourished among the early commentators on this “wonder insecticide of World War II.”¹ The insecticide had been developed during the late 1930s by Paul Muller, of the Swiss firm of J.R. Geigy,² and had first demonstrated its potency in 1939 against, ironically, the Colorado potato beetle (long a European pest by that time). The first American tests on DDT were not possible until 1942, but the product scored so impressively in these that virtually all available supplies were immediately appropriated by the U.S. Army. Pyrethrum and rotenone, the insecticides normally used against disease-carrying insects, were in short supply...

  7. Bibliographic Notes
    (pp. 257-280)
  8. Index
    (pp. 281-288)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-289)