Did you know that Paul Herman Müller was born today in 1899? He was a Swiss chemist assigned to find or develop an insecticide (a chemical used to kill insects). Insects destroy crops and spread diseases such as malaria, typhus, the plague, and more. Müller’s search for the ideal chemical took 4 years and 349 trials until he found DDT. This new insecticide saved millions of lives during World War II and helped to eradicate malaria from many countries, including the United States. In 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of DDT and its effectiveness as an insecticide.
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Müller wanted to find a compound that would be able to be used against a variety of insects, would be long-lasting, and cheap to produce.
Two events that motivated Müller’s work include a food shortage in Switzerland caused by crop infestation and destruction, and an extensive and lethal typhus epidemic in Russia.
DDT is short for Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. It was first synthesized by Othmar Zeidler in 1874. Zeidler studied the synthesis of the compound, but did not study any of its properties or possible uses.
DDT was used to control insects that damaged crops or insects that carried diseases. While effective, the larger impact on the environment was not studied before DDT was used liberally and perhaps excessively. In the 1960’s Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, which spoke about the possible impact of DDT on the wider environment. DDT does have an impact on other animals, such as birds. Eventually, with more research countries have put restrictions on the use of DDT and have sought to find ways to balance the needs of disease-control and environmental stewardship.