By: Scott RossPublished: October 28, 2022

Paul Müller

On October 28, 1948, Swiss chemist Paul Müller reached the pinnacle of his vocation, as he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Hooray! Amazing! Except for one minor detail: he was being recognized for his discovery in 1939 of the insecticidal uses for Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known to Ramones fans everywhere as DDT.

DDT had been kicking around since 1847, but it was almost a century before Müller discovered that it could lay waste to any number of bugs that were spreading deadly diseases all around the world. At first it seemed that Müller had found magic bullet for containing or eradicating things like malaria and typhus. And to be fair, it worked.

Not only was DDT hugely effective in protecting US troops fighting in the South Pacific and Europe during WW II, but America's National Malaria Eradication Program was launched on July 1, 1947, and primarily involved "DDT application to the interior surfaces of rural homes or entire premises in counties where malaria was reported to have been prevalent in recent years," according to the Centers for Disease Control. Within two years more than 4.5 million homes had been sprayed and by 1951, malaria was effectively gone from the United States.

But from the beginning of DDT's widespread use there were concerns about its safety and in 1958 New Yorker writer Rachel Carson got a letter from a friend in Massachusetts who was saddened to report the large number of bird fatalities that had followed a recent DDT spraying campaign. Carson started investigating the effects of DDT and found that it was too good at killing just about everything: bugs, birds, plants, people... Her 1962 book Silent Spring laid out the case against DDT so persuasively that President Kennedy ordered an investigation by the Science Advisory Committee, whose report was ultimately "a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring thesis."

By 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency began hearings on the safety of DDT and by 1972 it was banned for agricultural use in the US.

Fortunately (?), Müller died in 1965, before the tide had fully turned against his great discovery, allowing Nature magazine to note in reporting his death that "DDT insecticides are still extensively used to-day with success in many parts of the world against the Anopheles mosquito, the carrier of malaria."

Müller's blurb on the Nobel Prize committee's website, however, includes one of the more unfortunate kickers:

Several serious diseases are spread by insects. For example, malaria is spread by mosquitoes. Typhus fever is spread by lice in clothing, and epidemics have broken out when hygiene is neglected, particularly in connection with wars. In 1942 Paul Müller discovered that the substance DDT was effective in killing insects. With the aid of DDT, people could curb the spread of malaria and halt an epidemic of typhus. It would turn out, however, that DDT had serious after effects. It became concentrated in the food chain and injured other animals and people.

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