Born in Switzerland
Year of Discovery: 1939
Paul Muller Discovered DDT Which Led to the Eradication of Malaria in the United States and Europe
Paul Müller was a chemist who made a discovery that led to the rapid decrease of many dangerous insect transmitted diseases. He did this by finding one of the most effective and controversial pesticides in history. It has been found to be effective in killing the mosquito, which spreads malaria; the louse, which spreads typhus; the flea, which spreads the plague; and the sandfly, which spreads tropical diseases. It was a main factor in complete elimination of malaria in Europe, the U.S., Japan, and Australia. This pesticide is called dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, more commonly pronounced as DDT.
Müller was an independent scientist often referred to in the labs as a lone wolf, or as his daughter related, an Eigenbrotler - someone "who makes his own bread." Two events occurred that influenced his research into insecticides. The first was a severe food shortage in Switzerland, which demonstrated the need for better insect control of crops. The second event was the Russian typhus epidemic, the largest typhus epidemic in history that killed 3,000,000 after WWI. Müller, with his background in chemistry and botany, found himself both motivated and prepared for the challenge.
He worked for J.R. Geigy (which eventually became today's drug giant Novartis), developing tanning methods for protecting clothes from insects, and a safe seed disinfectant that wasn't based on poisonous mercury compounds, as was common in his era. After these successes, he decided to pursue the perfect synthetic insecticide. He absorbed all the information possible on the subject, came up with properties such an ideal insecticide would exhibit, and set forth on his solitary quest to find it. After four years of work and 349 failures, in September of 1939, Müller placed a compound in his fly cage. After a short while the flies dropped and died. What he had found was DDT.
In 1948, Paul Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, despite the fact that he was neither a doctor nor a medical researcher, but rather a chemist. Such recognition speaks volumes about the world's perception of the benefits of DDT in preventing human disease. Later, due to overuse, questions began to surface about its impact on nature. Then environmentalists rallied against it, which culminated in the U.S. Environment Protection Agency banning DDT in 1972. Soon, most other countries also banned its use. Environmentalists and public health advocates remained polarized for decades over DDT. It wasn't until September, 2006, that the World Health Organization reversed its stance and admitted DDT was at times the best insecticide to prevent malaria. As the years have passed, many on both sides of the debate are coming to realize that both sides may be right. Too much DDT definitely harms the environment. But also proper limited use of DDT, on the inside walls of homes, can be effective and have virtually no impact on the environment.
Written by science writer, Adam Allie
Lives Saved: Over 37,000,000
Read His Feature Chapter in the Book
By the time DDT became commercially available, mosquitoes were known to be the vector for transmitting malaria. Those that battled them to rid the world of the dreaded disease became known as "mosquito men":
The most famous mosquito man was Fred Soper, the so-called "General Patton" of entomology. After working to eradicate yellow fever in South America, Soper proposed that with DDT it was possible to completely eradicate malaria. His focus was not on killing every Anopheles mosquito. Rather, he supported spraying the insides of houses in infected zones. After imbibing blood from a human, mosquitoes like to rest, and so often land on a nearby wall. There the DDT would kill them. Spraying all over a particular country could create a "hiatus," during which little malarial transmission would occur. It takes three to four years for a human to completely clear the parasite from his or her body, but once this time had passed, even if mosquitoes were allowed to propagate again due to decreased spraying, there would be no protozoa for them to ingest and pass on. This program began with some stunning successes. The first occurred in 1946 in Sardinia, then the most malarial region of Italy. Soper attacked it with the vengeance of the general after whom he was nicknamed. With financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, he hired 33,000 people to spray more than 286 tons of DDT in 337,000 buildings. Along with environmental approaches, such as draining swamps, he managed to reduce the number of malaria cases on the island from 75,000 in 1946 to nine in 1951. Such was the power of DDT.
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Diseases Insects Carry
Just a few of the insects DDT can eradicate, along with the diseases they carry:
- Mosquito - malaria
- Louse - typhus
- Flea - plague
- Sandfly - numerous tropical diseases.
Slip the Mosquitos a Mickey
One Compound used to make DDT is chloral hydrate, an early sleep medication. It is the drug behind the sedative "Mickey Finns", from which the phrase "Slip them a Mickey" originated.
There are about 3,000 species of mosquitoes, but the Anopheles mosquito is the only one that transmits malaria.
Only the female mosquito bites - she needs the protein in blood to develop her eggs.
A mosquito can detect you from up to 30 meters away by sensing exhaled carbon dioxide or infrared radiation.
Mosquitoes race to you at 1.5 miles per hour.
The British Medical Journal, 2006
WHO Recommends DDT to Control Malaria
Extensive research and testing, published in the latest report of the UN joint meeting on pesticide residue in 2000, have shown that well managed programmes of spraying DDT indoors pose no harm to humans or to wildlife.
As of 2015, 19 countries use DDT indoors
Lives Saved by DDT
In 1900, before the advent of DDT, it was estimated that 10 percent of all deaths around the globe were caused by malaria.
In India, when the eradication campaign began in 1953, there were 75 million malaria cases a year and 800,000 deaths. By 1966, there were fewer than a million annual cases of malaria and no deaths.
In parts of Indonesia 25 percent of the population were infected by malaria. When DDT was introduced, the rate fell to 1%.
In Venezuela the number of malaria cases dropped from 8 million to 800 when DDT use began.
There often was a reemergence of malaria, once DDT use stopped.
In Sri Lanka, the country's yearly malaria burden shrunk from 2.8 million cases in the 1940s, to just 17 in 1965. Five years after the country stopped using DDT the number of cases rose to 500,000.
In the 1980s, Madagascar stopped using DDT and immediately had an epidemic of malaria, with more than 100,000 dying.
In 2006, the Malarial Journal reported that South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar, and Swaziland slashed their malaria rates by 75 percent or more within two years of restarting DDT programs.
In 2018 malaria killed 445,000 people, more than half children.
Malaria is the number one killer of children in the world.
After recognizing the devastating effects insects could have on health and food supply, when his employer looked for someone to work on insecticides, Müller volunteered. Müller shaped his own requirements for a successful synthetic insecticide. He considered what his ideal insecticide should look like, and the properties it should possess. He soon realized that a contact or "touch" insecticide would possess better prospects than an oral poison. His key insight was setting specific properties an ideal insecticide should have and then trying to model an insecticide to meet these properties.
Müller's ideal insecticide properties
1. Great insect toxicity
2. Rapid onset of toxic action
3. Little or no mammalian or plant toxicity
4. No irritant effect and no, or only a faint, odor (in any case, not an unpleasant one)
5. The range of action should be as wide as possible, and cover as many Arthropods as possible
6. Long, persistent action, i.e. good chemical stability
7. Low price (economic application)
Key Experiments and Studies
Müller set about devising and testing various compounds. He was at home in his lab, testing all the compounds himself, spraying them into a big glass chamber and putting insects - primarily Calliphora vomitoria, otherwise known as the common house fly - into the chamber to see if they lived. Müller diligently pursued a new insecticide from 1935 to 1939, testing a new compound every four days or so. But he didn't randomly combine chemicals like some mad scientist. Instead, he allowed insights drawn from previous investigations of his and others to suggest new chemical combinations. He had begun with Geigy's moth repellant - a chlorinated hydrocarbon with one or more carbon-chlorine bonds - because of its chemical stability. Later he learned compounds containing the chloromethyl group (carbon bonded to one chlorine and two hydrogen atoms) were also promising. Finding a paper published in 1934 on a substance called diphenyl-trichloroethane inspired Müller to investigate related substances, which have a trichloromethyl grouping - carbon bonded to three chlorines.
Finally, in September of 1939, after four years of work and 349 failures, Müller placed his 350th compound - a derivative of this diphenyl-trichloroethane - in the fly cage. For a short while the flies buzzed around normally, and Müller sighed at another failure. But, looking at the cage after some time had elapsed, he was amazed to see flies falling helplessly out of the air. Time after time Müller tested the new substance, and always the flies died. The fly cage was so toxic after a short period that even after very thorough cleaning of the cage, untreated flies, on touching the walls, fell to the floor. In fact, it remained toxic until dismantling the cage, having it thoroughly cleaned and after that leaving it for about one month in the open air.
Müller continued testing his new chemical on different arthropods. He demonstrated that a single application effectively killed the beetle and its larvae for up to six weeks. With a potential commercial use, the higher-ups at Geigy proceeded to patent DDT as an insecticide, then ran numerous experiments on different substances they could combine it with to deliver it to crops, animals, and humans. Geigy ramped up production, and by 1942 DDT was in wide use throughout Switzerland, where it saved the country's potato crop from those pesky beetles. In addition, Geigy provided the Swiss army commander with a ton of Neocid powder, full of DDT, to control the lice that infested war refugees who were entering the country. The Swiss gave a sample of DDT to the United States, where it found its way to the military, which was testing more than 10,000 insecticides. It completely outperformed every other insecticide and was soon being used in the World War II effort throughout the world.
Quotes by Müller
"Such personally conducted biological investigations stimulate the chemist in his work and at the same time he learns, by his observations, to understand the problems and uncertainties of biological tests and is thus better able to appreciate the difficulties facing his colleagues who work in biology. Sometimes new and valuable discoveries may be made by small changes in methods of application, or again by the correct observation of apparently unimportant side-effects."
-On why he liked to work alone
"After the fruitless testing of hundreds of various substances I must admit that it was not easy to discover a good contact insecticide. In the field of natural science only persistence and sustained hard work will produce results, and so I said to myself ‘Now, more than ever, must I continue with the search.' This capacity I owe probably...to strict upbringing by my teacher, Professor Fichter, who taught us that in chemistry results can only be achieved by using the utmost patience."
-After two years of trying to create a new pesticide
"My fly cage was so toxic after a short period that even after very thorough cleaning of the cage, untreated flies, on touching the walls, fell to the floor. I could carry on my trials only after dismantling the cage, having it thoroughly cleaned and after that leaving it for about one month in the open air."
-Just after discovering DDT
Quotes About DDT
DDT is the single most effective agent ever developed for saving human life.
-Dick Tavern, British politician
You could eat a spoonful of it and it wouldn't hurt you.
-Dr Donald Roberts, professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University
Not even one peer-reviewed, independently replicated study linking exposure to DDT with any adverse health outcomes exists.
-Amir Attaran, 2000 British Medical Journal essay
After having tested different chemical combinations, you...made one of the greatest discoveries within the recent history of prophylactic medicine. DDT... kills the mosquito, which spreads malaria; the louse, which spreads typhus; the flea, which spreads the plague; and the sandfly, which spreads tropical diseases.
-Gustaf Hellström, at the Nobel Prize ceremony
The excellent DDT powder, which has been fully experimented with and found to yield astonishing results, will henceforth be used on a great scale by the British forces in Burma, and the American and Australian forces in the Pacific and India and in all theatres.
If there's nothing else and it's going to save lives, we're all for it. Nobody's dogmatic about it.
-Greenpeace spokesperson Rick Hind, after Greenpeace stopped their effort to completely ban DDT
It might be easy for some to dismiss the past 43 years of eco-hysteria over DDT with a simple 'never mind', except for the blood of millions of people dripping from the hands of the WWF, Greenpeace, Rachel Carson, Environmental Defense Fund, and other junk science-fueled opponents of DDT.
-Steve Milloy, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute
Men who voluntarily ingested 35 mgs of DDT daily for nearly two years were carefully examined for years and 'developed no adverse effects.
-Hayes, W. 1956. JAMA 162:890-897
To few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT.
-The U.S. National Academy of Sciences - 1970.
The Lone Wolf
Müller's daughter, Margaretha, remembers that he often was so absorbed in his work that he seemed to be wearing blinders that blocked everything else from view. As a high school student, he spent hours locked in his home laboratory working with no assistance on his own experiments. This continued into his career and he latter became known in the labs as a lone wolf, or as his daughter related, an Eigenbrotler, someone "who makes his own bread".
Whoa! Too Much!!
Müller saw how his discovery was being used firsthand in 1945, when he was invited to the United States. He was horrified to see that rather than recognizing, as he had, that a little would go a long way, the U.S. had crop dusters blanketing fields with the stuff. The chemical was being used in much greater amounts than needed, much more often than recommended. Müller was even sprayed with it at the Swiss border when he returned home from his U.S. trip.
The 1950s were an era when policy makers believed that if a little of something was good, more had to be better. DDT came to be used for any insect problem. In 1959 alone, more than 80 million pounds of DDT was sprayed over the US, almost half a pound per person. Much of Rachel Carson's criticisms of DDT were correct in its massive use. Unfortunately, zealots could not abide a reduced use and pushed through an absolute ban.
The Science Behind the Discovery
Basic Science Primer on Malaria
Malaria is a protozoa, which are in the kingdom Protista, a conglomeration category where scientists put organisms they don't know what to do with. They don't fit into the better-known classifications of animal, plant, fungus, and bacteria. Malaria is a parasite, living on or in another living organism, to the detriment of that organism. While it thrives in many animals, only four types infect humans. If you are infected with any of three types you will likely survive, although the symptoms can reappear years later (the record is thirty years). The malaria parasite hides out in the liver during this time and can reactivate. However, if you are infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the most common species in Africa, your sickness may be severe, even deadly.
Within thirty minutes of being bitten by an infected mosquito, the little parasites left behind are infecting your liver. The next day or two, all you notice is the itchy red bump needing an occasional nuisance scratch. But two weeks later your liver cells burst open, releasing tens of thousands of daughter parasites. These parasites then infect red blood cells, releasing eight to twenty-four daughter cells with each cell burst. Unfortunately, your immune system has trouble attacking the invaders because the parasites attach to red blood cells with surface proteins of almost unlimited variation (each parasite can have as many as 60 different attaching proteins). The parasites cause red blood cells to bind to blood vessel linings and other red blood cells. As they accumulate they jam together stickily, blocking blood flow in the body's smallest vessels, which limits the local oxygen supply. Eventually you develop a fever, to be followed by sweats, headaches, and rigors. Sometimes the fevers occur periodically, every two to three days. You need medical attention quickly, for malaria is one of the greatest scourges known to humankind.
It is especially fatal to children and pregnant women. It kills 2,000 children a day, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. In one study, it was found that the average person with malaria had had it twelve times before. This recurring sickness erodes people's productivity. It is estimated to cost the African continent $12 billion a year in lost gross domestic product because of its debilitating symptoms. Today, malaria still infects as many as 500 million people each year, killing more than a million. Forty to fifty percent of the world's population live in areas held hostage to the Anopheles mosquito's piercing sup.
Basic Science Primer on DDT
DDT kills insects by binding to sodium ion channels in the insects' nerve cells, or neurons. These ion channels, which can open or close depending on the voltage difference between the inside and outside of the cell, allow neurons to conduct electrical signals. Normally, a discrete electrical signal travels the length of the neuron and is then passed along to other neurons via chemical neurotransmitters, after which the neuron remains inactive for a certain amount of time, until it is excited by another electrical signal. This type of controlled signal conduction is the basis of the nervous system, both in insects and in other types of animals, including humans. When DDT binds to an insect's sodium channel, however, it forces the channel to remain open, causing the neuron to continue firing, and eventually leading to paralysis and death of the insect.
Fortunately for humans and other mammals, the sodium channels in our brains evolved slightly differently from those in insect brains, making them less susceptible to DDT. In addition, DDT is more potent at the body temperature of a typical insect than at human or mammalian body temperatures and, furthermore, our bodies metabolize more of it before it reaches our brains than do insect bodies. That said, it is worth noting that DDT is very soluble in body lipids, and has the potential to affect a number of other systems in the body, so the fact that it does not target our sodium channels doesn't entirely let it off the toxicological hook.
Müller knew nothing of ion channels while he was developing DDT, or afterwards - he just knew that some chemicals are capable of killing insects while leaving other animals apparently unharmed. In fact, scientists today use DDT, and other insecticides that act on insect sodium channels, to study the tinkering that evolution has done with ion channels since the time that the insect and pre-mammalian genetic lines split. Thus, DDT illustrates a very common phenomenon in science, in which a discovery is made long in advance of a full understanding of the system to which it applies.
DDT Controversy and the Birth of Environmentalism
In 1962, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring sprang forth and created modern environmentalism. After being serialized as essays in The New Yorker, it was published as one of the first major environmental treatises. The book was an indictment of the environmental devastation wrought by DDT, tracking the way DDT entered the food chain, and claiming it caused cancer and other damage. Silent Spring became one of the most influential books of the 20th century, and is still assigned today to middle and high school students around the country.
The book centered upon the one negative attribute of DDT - its ability to dissolve well in oil. This characteristic didn't seem all that important at first, but as Rachel Carson pointed out, it turns out to be DDT's Achilles heel. It allows the substance to build up in the fatty tissue of animals, becoming more concentrated as it moves up the food chain. Rachel Carson tarred DDT with the negative attributes of all poisonous insecticides. When she mentioned other chemicals in the book, she compared their toxicity to DDT, some of which were hundreds of times more toxic. DDT was an acronym that the public could remember, so it became synonymous for all dangerous pesticides. Then, to culminate her argument, Carson associated DDT with cancer. There were no good studies of DDT causing cancer, but it was an alarmist era, during which insidious associations played well.
Over the next decade, fueled by Rachel Carson's book, the environmental movement grew. In 1960, environmental groups in the U.S. had barely 100,000 members. By the end of the decade they boasted over a million. They joined in well-founded outrage over the previous decade's above-ground testing of atomic weapons, which left clouds of radiation floating through the atmosphere, the air over the nation's cities being filled with smog, oil spills on America's coasts, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and over Cleveland's Cuyahoga River's oil-filled water catching fire. When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, more than 20 million Americans participated. Political change quickly followed with the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Then, in 1972, the US Environment Protection Agency banned DDT.
DDT and the Birth of Environmentalism
- 1962 - Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring sprang.
- The book was an indictment of the environmental devastation wrought by DDT, tracking the way DDT entered the food chain, and claiming it caused cancer and other damage.
- Silent Spring became one of the most influential books of the 20th century, and is still assigned today to middle and high school students around the country.
- The book centered upon the one negative attribute of DDT - its ability to dissolve well in oil. This characteristic didn't seem all that important at first, but as Rachel Carson pointed out, it turns out to be DDT's Achilles heel. It allows the substance to build up in the fatty tissue of animals, becoming more concentrated as it moves up the food chain.
- DDT was an acronym that the public could remember, so it became synonymous for all dangerous pesticides.
- Then, to culminate her argument, Carson associated DDT with cancer. There were no good studies of DDT causing cancer, but it was an alarmist era, during which insidious associations played well.
- Over the next decade, fueled by Rachel Carson's book, the environmental movement grew.
- In 1960, environmental groups in the US had barely 100,000 members. By the end of the decade they boasted over a million. They joined in well-founded outrage over the previous decade's above-ground testing of atomic weapons that left clouds of radiation floating through the atmosphere, the air over the nation's cities being filled with smog, oil spills on America's coasts, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and over Cleveland's Cuyahoga River's oil-filled water catching fire. When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, more than 20 million Americans participated.
- Political change quickly followed with the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Then, in 1972 the US Environment Protection Agency banned DDT.
- Nor were the environmentalists content to only ban it in their own countries - they wanted a worldwide ban. And, with malaria wiped out of most of the wealthy nations, it was easy for them to gain political support, ignoring the silent tears of people who were once again losing loved ones to malaria. Environmentalists even successfully encouraged countries such as Norway and the U.S. to withhold some forms of aid to countries still using DDT.
- Greenpeace, The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), and over 300 other environmental groups pressed hard for a complete ban of DDT in the 1990s. In 1999, Clifton Curtis, Director of the WWF's Global Toxics -Initiative, said, "These chemicals are completely unmanageable and as long as they are used somewhere on Earth, nobody is safe."
- There was a small cry by a few that in demonizing DDT, the environmentalists had thrown out the baby with the bath water. But the many environmental groups railing against DDT bartered no middle ground, and drowned out the opposing voices.
- Still, it seemed that DDT influenced even resistant mosquitoes' behavior due to its "excito-repellent" effect, which causes mosquitoes to actually fly away after just smelling the insecticide.
- And not all insects developed resistance. Sand flies never developed the same resistance to DDT as mosquitoes.
- Lisa Makson's Front Page Magazine article entitled "Rachel Carson's Ecological Genocide."
- Michael Crichton, author of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, had one of his characters in the novel State of Fear, say that banning DDT was "arguably the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century" and that the ban "killed more than Hitler."
- In Sri Lanka, the country's malaria burden had shrunk from 2.8 million cases in the 1940s, to just 17 in 1965. Five years after the country stopped using DDT, the number of cases had risen to 500,000.
- In the 1980s, Madagascar stopped using DDT and immediately had an epidemic of malaria, with more than 100,000 dying.
- The arguments led to research. One common environmental argument was that there were more effective insecticides to control mosquitoes, usually citing deltamethrin. But in a U.S. Uniformed Services University study in Belize, huts treated with deltamethrin allowed in 32 times as many mosquitoes as those treated with DDT, and of those entering the DDT huts, most exited without biting.
- In fact, even 40 years after the publication of Silent Spring, many of Carson's DDT claims have still failed to materialize.
- Although it was found to cause eggshell thinning in some bird species, DDT had no effect on others.
- While no one disputes that DDT and its metabolite DDE persist in the environment, and in the fat of mammals and fish, there is no evidence of any significant toxicity in humans, nor any strong link with cancer.
- Dr. Donald Roberts, professor of tropical public health at the Uniformed Services University said, "You could eat a spoonful of it and it wouldn't hurt you."
- Amir Attaran, a lawyer and human rights advocate, went further, noting in an essay published in the British Medical Journal in 2000 that, "not even one peer-reviewed, independently replicated study linking exposure to DDT with any adverse health outcomes exists."
- In the 1990s, a third of all hospital admissions in Africa were for malaria (compared to virtually none in the U.S.).
A Middle Ground - The Position Humans Seem to Have Trouble Taking
- In light of these vitriolic attacks, some of which were directed against Rachel Carson herself, it would be interesting to know what Rachel Carson would have said. But, she died in 1964. She did say in Silent Spring: "It is not my intention that chemical insecticides must never be used." We will never know what her position on a complete DDT ban would have been.
- The zealots won out for two decades, while the continent of Africa was still churning out malaria victims.
- Then, in the 1990s, the United Nations began trying to get the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty (POPs) passed. It laid out controls over the production, import, export, disposal, and use of twelve persistent organic pollutants, including DDT.
- As negotiations on the treaty proceeded, one of the most effective campaigns came in 1999, from The Malarial Foundation International, an advocacy group started by Dr. Mary R. Galinski. It produced a public letter, signed by more than 400 doctors from 63 countries, advocating the continued use of DDT.
- Finally, in 2001, DDT supporters achieved a breakthrough. The parties to the POPS treaty agreed to grant DDT a "health-related exemption" until cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives could be found. The positive effects in the fight against malaria were quickly apparent.
- In 2006, the Malarial Journal reported in a commentary: "Recently African countries that have reverted to DDT use have seen spectacular successes in their malaria control efforts. These include South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar and Swaziland who within two years of starting DDT programmes, slashed their malaria rates by 75 percent or more. With fewer people getting sick, access to ACT (an anti-malarial agent) drugs should be more feasible to nearly all victims, which should also cut malaria rates even further. Other African countries should learn from these shining examples, and start using DDT instead of sitting on the fence appeasing environmentalists who appear to care less about the lives of others."
- In September, 2006, nearly thirty years after phasing out the widespread use of DDT to fight malaria, the World Health Organization reversed its stance. As the director of the WHO's malaria department said: "Of the dozen pesticides WHO has approved as safe for house spraying, the most effective is DDT."
- Indoor spraying involves small amounts sprayed once or twice a year at a cost of about $5 (most of that being for labor). No more is needed because the chemical has such a long staying power. Even though some mosquitoes have developed a resistance to it, they still are repelled from DDT-sprayed environments. And when limited to indoor use, it affects few birds or other animals.
- Finally, even the environmentalists came around to the evidence.
- "South Africa was right to use DDT," said World Wildlife Fund spokesperson Richard Liroff in 2005. "If the alternatives to DDT aren't working, as they weren't in South Africa, geez, you've got to use it. In South Africa it prevented tens of thousands of malaria cases and saved lots of lives."
- Greenpeace spokesperson Rick Hind agreed: "If there's nothing else and it's going to save lives, we're all for it. Nobody's dogmatic about it."
- Today some countries in Africa are again using DDT. They are spraying it indoors on walls, where it can do little environmental damage.
Müller was born on January 12, 1899, in Olten, Switzerland. The eldest of four children, his father was a railway clerk and his Lutheran mother ran the family with an iron hand. At first a mediocre student, Müller became interested in experimentation when he discovered science and chemistry in high school. Unfortunately, his fascination didn't help his grades. Instead of studying, he spent hours locked in his home laboratory working on his own experiments, with his father's encouragement. Despite constant lecturing from his mother and his school principal, Müller dropped out of school at 17 during World War I. He found work at industrial chemical companies in Basel.
This was the time of a severe food shortage in Switzerland and the Russian typhus epidemic, both of which seeded Müller's curiosity about insecticides. After two years, Müller returned to high school. After graduating in 1920, he entered the University of Basel. There Müller became a hard-working student, spending all his free time working in the labs both as a student and a paid assistant. He majored in chemistry, with minors in physics and botany. His professor encouraged Müller to go on to graduate school, where he did his PhD thesis on a compound used to manufacture dyes, a common substance nearby chemical companies produced.
1925 - Doctorate (PhD), Basle University
Wife - Friedel
Sons - Heinrich, Niklaus
Daughter - Margaretha
Other Research by Paul Müller
Müller's early work at J. R. Geigy concerned vegetable dyes and natural tanning agents. He began researching M-Xylidine, (CH3)2C6H3NH2 (used in making pigments and dyestuffs), and its chemical and electrochemical oxidation. He also researched tanning agents, and he invented synthetic agents on his own time. They tanned hides pure white, but had problems when subjected to light, until 1930 when he developed synthetic tanning agents Irgatan FL and Irgatan FLT. Müller also worked on disinfectants, on moth-proofing agents for textiles, and pesticides in general. One of his discoveries was Graminone, a mercury-free seed pesticide. In 1962, Paul Müller retired to work in a private laboratory he established, trying to find a pesticide that plants could absorb through their roots, rather than their leaves.
Paul Müller died of a stroke in 1965, a year after Rachel Carson died of breast cancer. His death proved bittersweet for his family who, while mourning his loss, were glad he never had to endure the vitriol directed against his discovery in the years that followed.
Timeline of Paul Müller's Life
1899 - Born on Jan. 12, Olten, Switzerland
1916 - Laboratory assistant for Dreyfus and Company
1917 - Dropped out of high school; assistant chemist in the Scientific-Industrial Laboratory at Lonza A.G.
1918 - Returned to high school
1919 - Obtained his high school degree
1925 - Received doctorate from Basel University
1925 - Joined the chemical company J.R. Geigy
1927 - Married Friedel Rüegsegger
1929 - Son Heinrich born
1930 - Developed the light-fast synthetic tanning agents
1933 - Son Niklaus born
1934 - Daughter Margaretha born
1935 - Started research on new synthetic contact insecticides
1939 - Discovered DDT
1946 - Became Deputy Director of Scientific Research on Substances for Plant Protection
1948 - Won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of DDT
1965 - Died on Oct. 12, Basel
Scientific Discovery Timeline of DDT's Fight Against Malaria
1897 - Army surgeon Ronald Ross discovered that the only way to catch malaria was through the mosquito
1902 - Ross became the first of four researchers to be awarded a Nobel Prize for work associated with malaria
1939 - Müller discovered DDT and, with it, a way to fight malaria
1942 - DDT's first use was throughout Switzerland, where it saved the country's potato crop from pesky beetles
1942 - U.S. military started producing DDT, and made it top secret
1944 - DDT used to fight mosquito-borne dengue fever in Saipan, allowing the Marines to take the island
1944 - Censorship of information on DDT was lifted
1947 - July 1st, U.S. National Malaria Eradication Program began, spraying over 4 million homes
1951 - Malaria was eradicated from the United States
1955 - World Health Organization submits proposal to eradicate malaria worldwide, using DDT
1959 - Highest use of DDT in the U.S., with over 80 million pounds sprayed (a half pound per person)
1962 - Silent Spring released, questioning the environmental impact of DDT
1964 - Rachel Carson died of breast cancer
1965 - Paul Müller died
1970 - April 22, the first Earth Day celebrated
1972 - U.S. Environment Protection Agency banned DDT
1976 - World Health Organization admitted its failure to eradicate malaria
1999 - Malarial Foundation International started by Dr. Mary R. Galinski, advocating the continued use of DDT
2001 - Parties to the POPS treaty agreed to grant DDT a "health-related exemption"
2006 - September, World Health Organization reversed its stance on not using DDT to fight malaria
Nobel Prize in Medicine 1948
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject
CDC's History of Malaria
Muller's Nobel Prize Biography
British Medical Journal - WHO recommends DDT to control Malaria
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