July 15, 2006

War has always been a scourge. It not only destroys lives and property in a direct manner through shot, shell, bombs and fire but it often leaves in its wake death and disease in many other forms. Among these, typhus has probably been the greatest killer, and, malaria, another destroyer, offers a constant menace because of its prevalence in the tropics. The cause of these threats to human life are the many in­sects that car­ry dis­ease. In con­trast to other great con­flicts, we hear little about the loss of life due to pestilence in this war. Why is this?

As in so many cases we won’t find the answer in one of today’s scientific discoveries. Here we shall have to go back more than seventy years and look over the shoulder of a chemical student, Othmar Zeidler, performing an experiment in Strasbourg. Young Zeidler on this particular day in 1874 produced a new chemical which he recorded in his notes as dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane—D.D.T. for short. But he saw no use for it, and the formula lay dormant in the records of the Chemical Society for sixty-five years.

In 1939 Swiss farmers were bothered with an unusual number of insects and since there was a great shortage of the usual insecticides the Geigy Chemical Company of Switzerland began to look around for substitutes. One of their young chemists, Paul Mueller, resurrected Zeidler’s old formula and tried out some of the D.D.T. The results were amazing. It took only the slightest contact with the chemical to kill the insects.

But the Swiss scientists found the usefulness of the new insecticide was not limited to just plant destroyers—it was equally effective against flies and lice. And when the War broke out and with it came the threat of typhus the Geigy Company’s American branch in New York turned over to our Army samples of the new insecticide which they had received from the parent company in Switzerland. In Orlando, Florida, government entomologists began to test the new material and all of the amazing claims were justified. A little D.D.T. powder dusted into the clothes safeguards the wearer from ty­phus—for two weeks—and if the clothes were washed in a so­lu­tion of the che­mi­cal the pe­ri­od was ex­ten­ded to three months!

When sprayed over a stag­nant pool it com­plete­ly rid the wa­ter of mos­qui­to lar­vae with­in 24 hours—an ef­fec­tive ans­wer to ma­la­ri­a. Next it was tried on the walls of a barn literally infested with flies. As if by magic the flies disappeared and were not seen again for over a month. D.D.T. had passed all the tests and came through as the outstanding insect-killer. But now that its potency was proven there still remained the problem of getting it in large quantities.

The pioneer company to tackle the job in this country was the Cincinnati Chemical Works. It is one thing to produce something in the laboratory test tubes and another to manufacture it by the ton. But the difficulties were overcome, and in 1943, D.D.T. began to go to the fighting fronts. As other companies went into production the new chemical joined our armed forces on the battlefronts in ever-increasing quantities. No one who has ever fought the battle of disease will underestimate the importance of this most powerful weapon.

But insects are with us not only during a war—we wage a constant battle against them at all times. They destroy the farmer’s crops and spread disease among all mankind. In India alone malaria kills a million people a year and in this country the com­mon fly trans­mits dis­ease to thou­sands. D.D.T. is our new wea­pon against the great loss caused an­nu­al­ly by some eight thou­sand dif­fer­ent kinds of in­sects. For home pro­tec­tion we can spray a screen and a fly won’t light on it for three months. It will kill more dif­fer­ent kinds of in­sects us­ing a small­er dose than an­y oth­er che­mi­cal now known. Undoubtedly when the War is over it will be sold to the public for general use.

Little did the young Zeidler know that day in Strasbourg that he was providing man with one of his most powerful weapons against disease-carrying insects. This is nearly always the case in the most important discoveries—the inventor rarely sees the ultimate application of his idea. For this reason we should encourage and treasure every new development—however unimportant it may seem at the time. Some day in an emergency it may turn out to be a thing of utmost importance.

(Originally delivered as a radio talk by Charles F. Kettering on some Sunday evening between September 1942 and July 1945, as an intermission to the General Motors Symphony of the Air.)

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Powered by WordPress with Hiperminimalist Theme design by Borja Fernandez.

Entries and comments feeds. Valid XHTML and CSS.