Mr Thomas Midgley Jr was, in his time, a revered chemist and engineer, as well as a prolific inventor. Granted over 100 patents, he was celebrated, and decorated with award and praise, and all in all, must have passed to the grave feeling pretty happy with himself.
His legacy however is somewhat more grim than he might have expected. It isn’t really possible, at present in any case, for us to have any accurate measure of the harm done to humanity, innumerable animal species, and on the whole, the entire planet, at the hands of Mr Midgley.
His invention of Tetra ethyl lead which was designed to increase the economy of gasoline fuel was put to standard use in the U.S and around the world from about the 1920’s. The toxic effect of lead had long been acknowledged, at least since Vitruvius who died in 15 BC.
Likewise 1920’s America understood many of the poisonous side effects from burning lead, and whilst ethanol was readily available as a substitute, Tetra ethyl lead was promoted since it was patentable, making it’s use extremely lucrative to his employers, a subsidiary of General Motors, who pushed ahead with it.
The impact of the release of lead to the atmosphere gained an increase in attention, and was banned by the 1970’s, though developing countries still today use the compound in fuel. Interestingly when we speak of the health concerns relevant here, we are not merely considering physical illness, and early death, but also learning disabilities, personality disorders, and other severe mental health problems.
Whilst we have long been aware of the harm to infants who have ingested lead, usually from old paint or pencils, making the child prone to an array of physical and psychological ailments, but could it really be that generations have been effected in conduct, behaviour, beliefs, attitudes and so on, in such a measurable way at the cause of a single toxin?
Well according to evidence which now seems close to insurmountable in the scientific community, the shocking answer is a hard, fast, and definitive yes. Yes, lead levels in infant blood is a significant cause of: deficient IQ, ADD, compulsion, violence, and according to some claims even psychopathy. One significant study shows that regional differences in violent crime may be up to 90% determined by local lead usage.
So then, Thomas Midgley may be guilty of mutating us into the snarling, rabid, blood thirsty pack of zombie-people we are today; hardly able to make a decision, from sheer stupidity. But you know, we all make mistakes after all! Perhaps Midgley made some other contribution? Or…
Nope. Unfortunately on this occasion the story gets darker, and the list of things we owe thanks to Midgley for has one final noteworthy addition. You know that protective atmospheric layer which protects our planet from the suns rays, thus making Earth habitable, and so giving rise to all the life we see around us. Yeah, the OZone layer, that’s it! Well you know that hole we made in it?
That’s absolutely right folks! We made the hole in it leading to a great deal of that global-warming chit chat we now hear about, and the main cause of the hole was the introduction and use of CFC’s in refrigerators, solvents, and so on. You guessed it, Mr. Midgley invented those for our pleasure too!
You might ask why he didn’t go all out and just design a death ray, though if this had been his intention, he might well have come up with a cure for aids.
By his early 50’s, Midgley chaired the United States National Academy of the Sciences, and was president of the American Chemical Society, and was given a number of prestigious awards before being struck with polio. He finally passed away by becoming entangled in a series of pulleys and ropes, which he himself designed to assist his nurses in getting him in, and out of bed. So at least we do have that, a perfect little mental image to keep.