Shoot to Kill: Control and Controversy in the History of DDT Science

Jake Sonnenberg

DDT has humble origins for a chemical that would eventually reach much of the world. First discovered in 1873 by a German chemistry student named Othmar Zeidler, the compound did not receive serious attention until a 37-year-old chemist named Paul Herman Muller synthesized it again in 1936. Muller developed the chemical while trying to identify the particular toxic ingredient in two other insecticides that he had recently invented, Gesarol and Neocid1. His investigation eventually yielded dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which he named DDT. Promptly patented in 1940 by Muller’s employer, a dye-manufacturing com- pany named Geigy, the chemical immediately proved to be incredibly powerful2. Over the next several decades, DDT would become one of the most significant and controversial chemicals of the twentieth century.

DDT was developed in an era often defined by its scientific and technological advances, and the chemical’s legacy is at once triumphant and cata- strophic. The early use of DDT during World War II enjoyed an almost reverential following, but its rampant and often indiscriminant deployment quickly generated significant criticism. DDT’s me- teoric rise to prominence reflected and deeply shaped historical attitudes towards science and scientific progress. The history of DDT in the United States reveals many of the ways in which science has been manipulated and controlled throughout history; calls into question many con- ventional assumptions about the relationships between science, society, and nature; and raises important questions about modern public health programs around the world.

DDT use first began in earnest in the 1940s, pro- pelled largely by the need to protect American soldiers from tropical diseases overseas. The chemical had already proven to be an effective pesticide during efforts to control Colorado potato beetles before the Second World War. Many researchers marveled at how potent even the smallest doses of DDT could be. Unlike many other insecticides, DDT would continue to kill insects for long periods of time, even after it was left sitting for days.3 By 1942, British and American scientists had begun to take interest in DDT as a possible mechanism to control the spread of malaria, typhus, dysentery, and typhoid fever among Allied military personnel stationed overseas.4
DDT’s later and more controversial history can only be properly understood in terms of the feverish enthusiasm that surrounded the chemi- cal during America’s wartime effort. It is difficult to overstate how closely DDT was linked with American military science during the war. Recognizing its importance on the battlefield, America’s War Production Board almost immediately began encouraging its manufacture, and it was placed on military supply lists in 1943 and 1944.5 With much available DDT being sent to the military in the form of personal cans of DDT powder and larger DDT aerosol bombs, relatively little remained available for public use in the United States.

In part due to its rarity, DDT stirred fascinating sentiments in the public discourse. As a part of America’s wartime strategy, DDT became a symbol of the nation’s war industry and its fight on the home front, and the government launched an advertising campaign encouraging the use of DDT. Some advertisements asked Americans if they were “prepared to fight both enemies,”6 mosquitos and the Axis, while others depicted Uncle Sam defeating Hitler with one hand and malaria-transmitting mosquitos with another.7 Perhaps the most interesting poster was emblazoned with the words “shoot to kill” and showed an American woman spraying DDT on an insect.8 Aside from their obvious militaristic overtones,the advertisements also revealed the collective excitement that surrounded DDT.

DDT was closely linked with military progress and almost universally heralded when it was formally made available for general use in 1944. Time called DDT “one of the great scientific discoveries of World War II.” Crediting the chemical with stopping a typhus epidemic in Naples, the magazine predicted that it “promises to wipe out the mosquito and malaria, to liquidate the household fly, cockroach and bedbug.”9 Months later, The Saturday Evening Post ran an article called “How Magic is DDT?” Written by Brigadier General James Stevens Simmons, a senior Army surgeon, the article relentlessly praised the chemical and discussed its military uses extensively. “An authoritative article by the man who knows best,” the Post commented on its own publication.10

Despite such initially laudatory attitudes, concerns about DDT’s health and safety emerged quickly. Less than a year after Time announced in its original 1944 story that “censorship was lifted” from DDT science, it ran another article called “DDT Dangers.” “The new wonder insecticide,” Time wrote in 1945, “may be a two edged sword that harms while it helps.”11 Although the article and other publications like it were not explicitly critical of DDT, they were a departure from the feverish celebration of prior years.

Early concerns about DDT detailed both the toxic harm DDT posed to humans and its negative impacts on the environment. Later in the 1940s, General Simmons, the same man who had authored the Saturday Evening Post article on the “magic” of DDT, said, “the preliminary safety tests, made with full-strength DDT, had been somewhat alarming.”12 In 1945, researchers conducted a series of tests on the effects of DDT spraying, and concern quickly arose over potential effects on the “balance of nature.”13 In the same year, The Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service released a very candid memorandum appraising many of the benefits and unknown risks of DDT. Conceding that “its use by the armed forces […] was so effective and the need so urgent that its effects on other organisms had to be
ignored,”14 the publication still noted that “wide-scale use, or use of DDT in concentrated form, are dangerous.” In contrast to many contemporary commentators, the publication urged caution based on “our knowledge and our ignorance. Time Magazine, too, publicly concluded that more research was needed before DDT could be deemed “safe for general use.”15

Despite these growing concerns, and without any further research, DDT was released for public use within months. The Food and Drug Administration established a “safe” DDT content limit of up to 7 parts per million in food, although, as science historian Kenneth Davis has pointed out, “no one could possibly know at that time what, if any, level was ‘safe’ over the long run.”16 Although its potential risks were well known in the scientific community and widely circulated in the mainstream media, DDT’s progress to market was generally unimpeded.

In 1945, there was immense pressure to bring DDT to market as quickly as possible.17 Chemical companies had strong economic motives to manufacture DDT and sell it to farmers, governments, and individual consumers for a variety of uses.18 Many governments were interested in DDT’s potential ability to increase food production, but DDT’s promise of controlling disease generated the greatest of these pressures. Bringing insect borne disease under control was a major concern in the Southern United States and abroad in countries like Greece and India. Malaria infection was rampant around the world, and DDT was salvation for many.19

This unique mix of demands quickly propelled DDT’s rise to mainstream usage. Although American researchers were interested in discerning the safety of DDT from the outset, their more immediate concern was deploying the chemical to protect Allied soldiers. Many scientists had reservations about the use of the new chemical, but as historian David Kinkela wrote in his book on the history of DDT, “for U.S. military and civilian health officials […] the war erased these dilemmas.”20 In a way, historical circumstance, more than any deliberate or scientific motive governed how DDT was received by the United States and shared with the rest of the world.

DDT science on both sides of the controversy also underscored the role and importance of bias in scientific research. While DDT’s critics have often attacked pro-DDT science for being industry funded or profit-driven, it is difficult to fault the rigor of their research. For instance, the Forest Service published studies highlighting the effectiveness of DDT in 1948. Their conclusions were often widely criticized, but their science is actually generally considered sound. Pro- and anti-DDT research differed mainly in the questions being asked rather than on the quality of research produced. There didn’t have to be foul play or biased motives involved when one study found that DDT could be harmful to natural ecosystems and another found that it was effective at controlling Spruce Budworms.21 It is important to note, however, that the chemical industry did wage an aggressive propaganda campaign to control how these scientific findings would be translated into public policy and public opinion.22

It is interesting that German scientists were notably unimpressed with DDT, and their fears helped illustrate the subjectivity of scientific interpretation. Some Germans disliked DDT, because they feared that it could cause harm to German bodies, an idea that was intimately tied to beliefs in German racial superiority. Hitler’s personal physician actually “prevented the distribution of the pesticide until 1943, alleging that DDT was both dangerous and useless.”23 Presented with much the same evidence, DDT could mean very different things to such different groups of people.

In the United States, DDT became deeply intertwined with feelings of national pride surrounding America’s wartime victory and its subsequent efforts to deliver health and economic development to foreign shores. In 1944, Life magazine ran a story called “Typhus in Naples” that covered American DDT-spraying campaigns in the Italian city.24 Celebrating these efforts, the article displayed an incredible array of photographs depicting American public health officials spraying DDT on Italian residents. Nearly every picture showed an Italian family gratefully receiving a dousing of DDT from a uniformed American. “Making women and children the centerpiece of the essay,” the magazine was “evoking paternal notions of U.S. interests abroad,” said Kinkela.25

At its core, the dominant DDT narrative was based on the promise of control. To the scourge of diseases and plagues of insects, DDT offered an elegant solution. Natural killers that had ravaged humanity throughout history could now be technologically managed with various types of “control” strategies: vector, disease, and population, all mediated though the use of DDT.

The simplicity offered by DDT was short-lived, however. As early as 1946, evidence began to emerge that some organisms could evolve genetic resistance to DDT. It was then that Department of Agriculture entomologists announced that they had produced a “strain of housefly much more resistant to DDT than the common stock.” On March 12, 1946, Science wrote that “it seems possible that, in time, a similar increase in resistance may occur under natural conditions.”26 Nevertheless, the ascendancy of DDT pressed onwards throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and the chemical was actually enlisted, misguidedly, into the fight against polio.27

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 fundamentally altered public conversations about DDT, but it did not nearly end debate on the subject. Although public opinion had turned strongly against DDT by the time it was banned in the United States in 1972, the chemical continues to stir controversy to this day. Carson was ridiculed by many of her contemporaries in the chemical industry. Some scholars have even suggested that criticisms of Carson seem charged with a particularly insidious sort of sexism.28 Over time, however, her book and the en- vironmental movement that accompanied it were largely successful at allying the nation against the use of DDT.

Even today, DDT’s legacy remains polarizing. While the environmentalist movement often hails Carson and her allies as founders of their crusade to protect the natural world, many people are highly critical of efforts to curtail the use of DDT. Michael Crichton once said the ban on DDT to control malaria “has killed more people than Hitler,” and many continue accuse anti-DDT environmentalists of being “eco-imperialists,” a term popularized by Paul Driessen, a senior fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Center.29 These criticisms are generally not taken seriously in the public health community, but they remain important indicators of the inflammatory attitudes that have long surrounded DDT.

Tracing a series of contradictory narratives, the evolution of DDT science sheds light on humanity’s complex relationship with the natural sciences. In the 1940s and 1950s, public health officials literally sprayed DDT out of hoses onto crowds of American citizens.30 Now, however, the chemical cannot be legally sold in the United States. The degree to which DDT helped significantly reduce the malaria burden is the subject of ongoing debate, but it is still deployed around the world as a valuable disease-fighting tool.32 DDT has undeniably devastating environmental and health ef- fects, and for years efforts to curb the use of DDT often downplayed or outright ignored its benefits. Presented with much the same evidence, different groups have pushed wildly different under- standings of DDT throughout history. DDT and the science and attitudes surrounding it are neither objective nor blameless. They have always been deeply historical, reflecting and influencing contemporary society more than absolute truth.




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