Paul Müller and the Use of DDT

Paul Müller

Paul Hermann Müller

On January 12, 1899, Swiss chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Hermann Müller was born. Müller received the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his 1939 discovery of insecticidal qualities and use of DDT in the control of vector diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.

Already during his later school years Paul Müller had a small laboratory where he was able to develop photographic plates or build radio equipment. Müller left school in 1916 to work as a laboratory assistant at Dreyfus and Company. He became assistant chemist in the Scientific-Industrial Laboratory of the electrical plant of Lonza A.G one year later. After returning to his formal education, Paul Müller earned his diploma by 1919 and entered Basel University in the same year. There he studied chemistry with a major with botany and physics with a minor and also studied inorganic chemistry under professor Friedrich Fichter. In 1922, Müller continued his studies in the organic chemistry lab of Hans Rupe. Paul Müller received his PhD on Die chemische und elektrochemische Oxidation des as. m-Xylidins und seines Mono- und Di-Methylderivates (The Chemical and Electrochemical Oxidation of Asymmetrical m-Xylidene and its Mono- and Di-methyl Derivatives) in 1925.

During the same year Paul Müller began working as a research chemist for the dye division of J. R. Geigy AG in Basel. When Geigy started researching moth- and plant-protection agents, Müller was especially enthusiastic for plant protection, intending to start synthesizing chemical plant protection agents himself. Müller was able to patent a technique for synthesizing novel rhodanide- and cyanate-based compounds which showed bactericide and insecticide activity and developed the seed disinfectant Graminone.

Müller was assigned to develop an insecticide after the success of his prior research. While working on the topic, Müller found out that insects absorbed chemicals differently than mammals, which led him to the assumption that there must be chemicals toxic exclusively to insects. While attempting to create an insecticide that was long-lasting and cheap to produce, Müller was motivated by a food shortage in Switzerland and a typhus epidemic in Russia. After 349 attempts, Paul Müller finally found the compounds he was looking for. The compound he had placed in the cage was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Müller quickly realized that DDT was the chemical he had been searching for. Tests of DDT by the Swiss government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed its effectiveness against the Colorado potato beetle. Further tests demonstrated its astonishing effectiveness against a wide range of pests, including the mosquito, louse, flea, and sandfly, which, respectively, spread malaria, typhus, the plague, and various tropical diseases.

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