The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

In Memorium - Jeanne Vance Davis

Jeanne Vance Davis

PHOTO: Jeanne Vance Davis

Jeanne Davis, who served Rachel Carson as executive assistant and secretary from 1959-1964, died at age 89 in Charlottesville, Virginia on December 20. In 1959 Davis answered an advertisement for an assistant that Rachel Carson put in the Washington Post when she was far behind her deadline on what was to be the revolutionary book Silent Spring. At the time, Davis was the wife of Dr. Burnet M. Davis and the mother of two teenagers living in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland. Carson interviewed Davis at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she offered her the job immediately, telling her editor, "if I had set out to make someone up I could hardly have done better."

Davis had "an incredibly right background." She attended Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, where she pursued her love of literature, theater, and classical music. She transferred to the University of California at Berkeley where she received a B.A. in economics in 1934. She moved to Boston and completed an executive secretarial course at Simmons College and then worked as an assistant to the Dean of the Harvard Medical School.

They moved to Rochester where Dr. Davis did a surgical residency and Jeanne was research and editorial assistant to the bio-psychologist Leonard Carmichael, later Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1949 she and her husband settled in Chevy Chase where he was a physician in the U.S. Public Health Service. Mrs. Davis also worked in the early 1960s as a part-time research assistant to bio-physicist Leo Szliard who, with Albert Einstein, had encouraged the United States to develop an atomic energy program and later insisted that scientists accept responsibility for the consequences of their work. Jeanne was thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of medical research and with a wide range of scientific and technical literature. She had excellent editorial skills, was widely read herself, with many contacts, both social and scientific, and was superbly organized.

Her personality was perfectly matched to Carson's. She was calm, efficient, soft-spoken, and unflappable. She had a wonderfully gentle manner and a keenly inquisitive and observant mind. She was in fact more broadly educated than Carson, but her demeanor and her character were such that these qualities only enhanced her value to Carson. Davis was privately horrified at the magnitude of work Carson had left to do on a book that was originally due in 1960 but not finished until 1962. She set herself up in library carrel at the National Institute of Health where she abstracted articles, turned up scientific documents, and made important contacts, which Carson used to make her case against the misuse of pesticides.

When Carson's cancer became more aggressive, it was Davis who not only kept the manuscript up to date, typing and editing, as well as screening calls and making appointments, but she also chauffeured Carson back and forth to the Washington Hospital Center for daily treatments. It is not too much to claim that without Davis, Carson could never have finished her book, nor would it have had the sound scientific underpinnings that allowed it to stand up to withering attack on publication. Davis was an intrinsic and essential part of the agonizing and brilliant achievement that was Silent Spring. Davis always claimed that she was given the gift of watching a major work of literature come to life, and downplayed her own contributions to it.

After Carson's death in April 1964, Davis was responsible for sorting and arranging Carson's literary papers, which were given to the newly opened Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Sadly, her husband Burnet died of cancer four years later. Although Davis maintained an active social life, and was quite beautiful, she never remarried. She was a master gardener and with her husband created an enviable landscape and garden at her home. She was also an inveterate traveler and loved nothing better than to take off for some new destination. A true citizen of the world, she was active in the Chevy Chase community, and in the local Unitarian church. She was beloved by many.

Davis participated in Neil Goodwin's 1994 documentary, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Her on-camera interview for that film remains the most memorable portrait of Rachel Carson replete with Davis's perceptive insight into the woman, the scientist, and the author.

Jean Davis's obituary was published in The Washington Post, January 2, 2005. C8. Material about Davis, including some correspondence, can be found in the Rachel Carson Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale University, and in the Stanley and Dorothy Freeman Papers, Special Collections, at Bates College. The Lear/Carson Collection, The Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives at Connecticut College holds correspondence, interviews, including the transcript for the Peace River documentary, and audiotapes made for Linda Lear's 1997 biography of Carson, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, as well as some photographs and other correspondence between Davis and Lear. Some restrictions apply to this material. See