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Paul Hermann Müller

(1899—1965) Swiss chemist

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(1899–1965) Swiss chemist

Müller, who was born in Olten, Switzerland, was educated at the University of Basel where he obtained his PhD in 1925. From then until 1961 when he retired Müller worked for the Swiss dye firm of J. R. Geigy as a research chemist.

In 1935 Müller began looking for a potent and persistent insecticide that would nevertheless be harmless to plants and warm-blooded animals. Five years later he took out a patent on a chemical that had first been prepared in 1873. The compound was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which was soon abbreviated to DDT. It turned out to be cheap and simple to manufacture, requiring only chlorine, ethanol, benzene, and sulfuric acid, all of which were available in bulk from the heavy chemical industry.

It soon proved its effectiveness as an insecticide during World War II. Müller thought it to be toxic only against insects and soon extravagant claims were being made about the elimination of arthropod-borne diseases. Before long, however, the insects appeared to be more resilient than chemists had supposed and DDT more destructive of life and ecosystems than they imagined. Several advanced countries were to ban it.

Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1948 for his discovery.

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