Why didn’t Maxwell Knight publish The Frightened Face of Nature?

Maxwell Knight was aware of the furore and criticism from chemical companies and others when Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962. Indeed, he credits her work in his unpublished manuscript. She wasn’t the only one in those years who drew attention to environmental problems and was criticised for not being “proper scientists”; however, her work was (is still) seminal.

Maxwell Knight was openly an amateur naturalist; however, so was Sir Peter Scott; Gerald Durrell and Charles Darwin. The first reason he did not publish this manuscript is that his publishers were divided – one thought it was the rantings of an amateur naturalist and the other believed the claims to be unscientific. What his publisher couldn’t have known at the time was how prescient the observations were.

The main reason, however, is fear of being branded a communist; Chemical companies condemned Rachel Carson’s findings as flawed and defended DDT by saying that it would be impossible to feed a country without pesticides. Her opponents were
many; she was accused of dreadful things including communism. Had Maxwell Knight received the same attention, the impact could have been far-reaching.

In 1962 the western world was in a “Cold War” with the Soviet Union and he could not have risked being branded with the same iron Miss Carson was (unfairly) branded with ‘unpatriotic and sympathetic to communism’. Given his MI5 status and the fact that four of the Cambridge “Five” Spies (Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt and eventually years later John Cairncross) – recruited by Stalin’s agents in the 50s – had been exposed by 1964. Add to this that Knight was amongst the first to warn MI5 that it had been infiltrated by the soviets (he wrote a paper entitled ‘The Comintern Is Not Dead’, sharing his fears about the potential danger of the NKVD).

It could just have been bad timing:

In 1964, five years before the moon landing, governments were spending their time and money focusing on projects that would continue to pummel nature and perhaps he simply felt that the 60s weren’t going to be the decade in which to encourage the planet’s occupants to be kinder. The world was rather preoccupied with The Soviet Union’s “Space Race” and America’s rebuttal with the “moon programme”, and all manner of changes that might have felt alien to a man like Knight, including the period of radical political change in Africa – where Knight focuses a good deal of his manuscript’s attention – as the thirty-two countries gained independence from its European colonial rulers.

Whatever the reason, Knight locked away The Frightened Face of Nature in his filing cabinet for the very last time at some point before his death in 1968, and there it sat – with a rich seam of national and natural history, until 2015.

The purpose behind sharing the filing cabinet’s contents is to encourage debate on the state of the world’s nature. We think Maxwell Knight would have approved.


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