Little Bits of History

Stopping Malaria

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 28, 2014
Paul Hermann Muller

Paul Hermann Muller

October 28, 1948: Paul Hermann Muller receives a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was a Swiss chemist born in Olten in 1899. His father worked for the Swiss Federal Railways and moved the family a few times, ending up in Basel. Paul went to the Free Protestant People’s School and later to both the lower and upper Realscule. He had his own small laboratory where he could develop photographic plates and build radio equipment. In 1916 he left school to work as a lab assistant at Dreyfus and Company. There, he began to study inorganic chemistry and eventually earned his PhD. He graduated summa cum laude after the acceptance of his dissertation, The Chemical and Electrochemical Oxidation of Asymmetrical m-Xylidene and its Mono- and Di-methyl Derivatives.

He got a job at JR Geigy AG in Basel and by 1935 began his study of moth- and plant-protection agents. He was more interested in the plant protection; he had a botany minor at the university. By 1937, he patented a technique for synthesizing novel rhodanide- and cyantate-based compounds and these showed bactericide and insecticide activity. He developed Graminone, a seed disinfectant which was much safer than the mercury-based disinfectants already in use. His success in this led to his assignment to develop an insecticide since there was none available that were both effective and inexpensive except for arsenic and these were poisonous to mammals, including humans.

During his research, Muller discovered that insects absorbed chemicals differently than mammals and inferred there must be chemicals toxic exclusively to insects. His goal was to find this. He did. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), or, more precisely, 1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-bis(4-chlorophenyl)ethane, had been synthesized in 1874. Muller came across the substance and found it had insecticide properties unknown to its discoverer, Othmar Zeidler. Muller realized this chemical would help eradicate the vectors of many diseases. DDT was effective against mosquitoes, lice, fleas, and sandflies which spread malaria, typhus, the plague, and various tropical diseases. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his help in lessening these diseases. Between 1950 and 1970, malaria was completely eradicated from many countries, including the US.

The indiscriminate use of DDT as it entered the agricultural community led to unforeseen issues. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and questioned the use of widespread DDT applications. The increased usage of the insecticide was having far reaching impacts on the environment. They were causative agents of cancers in agricultural workers and a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. The Stockholm Convention led to a worldwide ban of DDT for agricultural use. It is still used, controversially, for vector control in areas with high incidence rates of malaria. However, because of overuse, mosquitoes have developed resistance to DDT and its effectiveness has been greatly decreased.

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. – Paul Müller, 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. –  Paul Müller, just after discovering DDT

DDT is the single most effective agent ever developed for saving human life. – Dick Tavern

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

Also on this day: Higher Education – In 1538, the first university in the New World was established.
The Two Sisters – In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated.
Volstead Act – In 1919, Prohibition passed over President Wilson’s veto.
Gateway – In 1965, the Gateway Arch was completed.


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