With the onset of the atomic age in 1945, geneticists increasingly spoke out about how nuclear fallout and radiation impacted heredity and reproduction. The scholarship discussing post–World War II activism focuses almost exclusively on males, with little attention given to women who served as public scientists or the role gender 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 could be harmful. In Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson (1907–1964) drew on genetics to warn about the possible mutagenic properties of DDT along with other concerns. Both women fostered scientific literacy to empower an informed citizenry that could influence public policy. They appealed both to men and to the growing cadre of middle-class educated women, encouraging an expanded role for maternal responsibility: not only protecting families but also the well-being of all humankind.
This essay is part of a special issue entitled THE BONDS OF HISTORY edited by Anita Guerrini.