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Unformatted text preview: In the late nineteen-thirties, a chemist who worked for the J.R. Geigy company, in Switzerland, began experimenting with an odorless white crystalline powder called dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane. The chemist, Paul Muller, wanted to find a way to protect woollens against moths, and his research technique was to coat the inside of a glass box with whatever chemical he was testing, and then fill it with houseflies. To his dismay, the flies seemed unaffected by the new powder. But, in one of those chance decisions on which scientific discovery so often turns, he continued his experiment overnight--and in the morning all the flies were dead. He emptied the box, and put in a fresh batch of flies. By the next morning, they, too, were dead. He added more flies, and then a handful of other insects. They all died. He scrubbed the box with an acetone solvent, and repeated the experiment with a number of closely related compounds that he had been working with. The flies kept dying. Now he was excited: had he come up with a whole line of potent new insecticides? As it turned out, he hadn't. The new candidate chemicals were actually useless. To his amazement, what was killing the flies in the box were scant traces of the first compound, dichloro- diphenyl-trichloroethane--or, as it would come to be known, DDT. In 1942, Geigy sent a hundred kilograms of the miracle powder to its New York office. The package lay around, undisturbed, until another chemist, Victor Froelicher, happened to translate the extraordinary claims for DDT into English, and then passed on a sample to the Department of Agriculture, which in turn passed it on to its entomology research station, in Orlando, Florida. The Orlando laboratory had been charged by the Army to develop new pesticides, because the military, by this point in the war, was desperate for a better way to protect its troops against insect-borne disease. Typhus--the lethal fever spread by lice--had killed millions of people during and after the First World War and was lurking throughout the war zones. Worse, in almost every theatre of operations, malaria-carrying mosquitoes were causing havoc. As Robert Rice recounted in this magazine almost fifty years ago, the First Marine Division had to be pulled from combat in 1942 and sent to Melbourne to recuperate because, out of seventeen thousand men, ten thousand were incapacitated with malarial headaches, fevers, and chills. Malaria hit eighty-five per cent of the men holding onto Bataan. In fact, at any one time in the early stages of the war, according to General Douglas MacArthur, two-thirds of his troops in the South Pacific were sick with malaria. Unless something was done, MacArthur complained to the malariologist Paul Russell, it was going to be "a long war." Thousands of candidate insecticides were tested at Orlando, and DDT was by far the best....
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- Spring '09