I don’t know if he was the most dangerous American scientist ever to pour the contents of various beakers into a larger vessel and then loose the result, come what may, upon the general public, but if there were a competition for that title Thomas Midgley would be a top contender.
Go get yourself a cool drink, grab a chair, have a seat, and ponder with me this man who, very likely, is as responsible for much of the environmental mess we find ourselves in as any other human ever to grace this tainted planet.
Midgley was so smart, so creative, so imaginative, that his efforts in the lab touched millions — nay, tens of millions, even hundreds of millions — of lives here in this holy land and around the globe. Heck, let’s go all the way and say he’s somehow affected billions of us. But, like Prometheus of Greek mythology, his discoveries, his labors, wound up screwing the lot of us over…, well, to a nearly mythical extent. If only he were a mythical figure. The life and work of Thomas Midgley are all too true.
In fact, so brilliant was he, so gifted, that the last thing he conjured up in his fertile scientific mind wound up killing him. Fitting, I guess. It’s the living — us — who are dealing with the fallout from his endeavors.
First, let’s consider lead. Its chemical symbol is Pb, short for the Latin plumbum. It was in ancient Rome that water was first delivered to homes via lead pipes. That’s why we call plumbers plumbers. That’s why, some historians suggest, the Roman Empire fell. Its population, the hypothesis goes, all started going mad from the effects of lead in their water. Forget for a moment that there were countless reasons why the Roman Empire — why any empire has or will — collapsed. Hell, we’re witnessing that very phenomenon happening right here, right now. Just keep in mind that as far back as the end of the 19th century, the deleterious effects of lead became known. That’s when people began advancing their Roman Empire conjecture.
According the the Centers for Disease Control, lead, once it enters the human body, can and will cause such symptoms as abdominal pain, constipation, fatigue, headache, irritability, loss of appetite, memory loss, pain in the extremities, and overall physical weakness. Intense, chronic exposure to lead can produce in humans the inability to concentrate, depression, nausea, loss of coordination, insomnia, stupor, slurred speech, anemia, hallucinations, palsies, convulsions, and cancer. Children exposed to lead, for instance that found in lead paints in old homes, become antisocial, hyperkinetic, and aggressive, profoundly affecting their performance in school. Prolonged exposure may even lead to a type of blindness called scotoma. The World Health Organization estimates lead causes upwards of 10 percent of all mental disabilities in the world even today. The WHO warns that no level of exposure to lead is safe.
All this was becoming apparent toward the end of the 1800s. That’s fully a quarter century at least before Midgley, an employee the General Motors-owned research lab at Dayton, Ohio, started futzing around with lead. Educated at Cornell University in mechanical engineering, Midgley became interested in chemistry at the Dayton lab. One of the knocks (you’ll pardon the pun) against the then-newfangled automobiles in the 19-teens was the fact that the early engines in them knocked like hell. Auto manufacturers became hot for a gasoline compound that would eliminate the maddening knock as so many Model Ts sped along at, oh, 16 mph.
Midgley, by trial and error, found that adding a substance called tetraethyl lead, a derivative of basic lead, to gas greatly reduced loud knocking. The big boss at General Motors, Charles Kettering, and Midgley filed for a US patent and began to license the new compound’s use to petroleum companies. They became rich men. Well, Midgley became rich; Kettering simply richer.
Kettering and his GM crew, knowing the growing awareness that lead was a poison, took pains to not mention its addition to gasolines, so they trademarked the new gas ethyl. As in, something akin to a woman’s name, your aunt for example, the one who bakes apple pies. How can that hurt you?
Naturally, since gasoline, leaded or not, burns and its vapors enter the atmosphere through the automobile’s tailpipe, for the next five decades after Midgley’s discovery, adults and children inhaled lead with virtually every breath they took.
I wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Environmental Protection Agency started working to get leaded gas off the market. It took 20 years until ethyl™ was completely banned in this country for use in private automobiles. The rest of the world followed either quickly or leisurely. The last country to ban leaded gas seems to be Algeria. And guess what the hell what! That ban went into effect today, August 30, 2021.
Researchers have discovered that the dramatic decrease in the worldwide violent crime rate the last few decades can be directly connected to the disappearance of ethyl in the consumer market.
Clearly, leaded gas effectively kicked the shit out of humanity. Thanks, Thomas Midgley.
Funny thing is, Midgley staged a demonstration in hopes of allaying the public’s fears about leaded gasoline soon after he developed it in 1921. Before reporters, he washed his hands in the stuff and then inhaled deeply above a jugful of it for a full minute, claiming he could repeat the demonstration every day and not suffer any ill effects. What he didn’t tell the reporters that day was he’d already had to take a long break from his work due to lead poisoning a few months previously. Since then, he assiduously avoided coming anywhere near lead, except for that theatrical demonstration. When workers at various leaded gas processing plants started losing their minds and even dying, one company’s spokesperson announced the poor souls “probably went insane because they worked too hard.” Their fault, in other words.
Still, Thomas Midgley wasn’t finished. Toward the end of the decade of the 1920s, another newfangled machine, the air conditioner, was becoming more and more popular. Those early air conditioners used things like ammonia, chloromethane, propane, and sulfur dioxide as coolants. Problem was any and all of them were prone to explosions. General Motors, at the time, owned the Frigidaire Corporation, one of the early manufacturers of air conditioners. Kettering put Midgley in charge of a team working to find a “safer” substance for A/Cs. The Midgley team came up with Freon™️, a chlorofluorocarbon. Freon was volatile and many chemists warned it would be dangerous to produce the stuff on a widespread basis but Midgley and his team pooh-poohed the notion. Freon, they retorted, was chemically inert. Soon, almost every air conditioner made used Freon as a coolant and, before you knew it, manufacturers of underarm deodorants and other products coming in aerosol cans were gobbling up Freon as a propellant.
Flash forward to the 1970s and ’80s. Environmental scientists began noticing holes in the atmosphere’s ozone layer above both polar regions. The ozone layer protects life on Earth from overdosing on ultraviolet radiation coming from the Sun. The Sun, natch, keeps us alive but too much UV radiation can cause in humans eye cataracts, suppressed immune systems, genetic damage and skin cancer. The ozone layer filters up to 99 percent of the Sun’s UV radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface. Those holes in the ozone layer rapidly spreading above the poles were determined to have been caused by none other than Midgley et al’s Freon and other commercial chlorofluorocarbons. The nations of the world agreed to ban the use of them gradually when they signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Derivatives of Freon called hydrofluorocarbons were substituted by manufacturers for a few years but they, too, were found to be extremely dangerous. Under terms of a 2019 amendment to the Montreal Protocol, these HFCs have been branded “super greenhouse gases” and are now strictly regulated.
So, in a short decade, Thomas Midgley developed a couple of industrial products that have spurred much of the population to violent crime and subjected the rest of us, not dead or in prison, to an all-too-often fatal form of cancer. Prometheus, indeed.
I forgot to mention, Thomas Midgley, for his efforts, was awarded the Nichols Medal by the American Chemical Society and the Perkins Medal by the Society of Chemical Industry. Both these prizes were awarded after Midgley took a sabbatical in 1923 due to the aforementioned case of lead poisoning he suffered.
So far as I can determine, Midgley has not received any medals from environmental or public health organizations.
Midgley did not live a terribly long life. He contracted a case of polio in 1940 when he was 51 years old. Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Midgley became a cripple. Ever the inventor, Midgley, unable to walk, designed while lying in his bed a pulley device that would lift him above his bed so the sheets could be changed and would turn his inert body so he wouldn’t suffer bedsores. The device was driven by an electric motor pulling and releasing a network of ropes. Wouldn’t you know it, one day in 1944 Midgley got tangled up in the mesh of ropes and was strangled to death. He was 55 years old.
Neither a poet nor a novelist could conjure so fitting an end for him.