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Book review: The Chemical Age

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
July 26, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 27


Summer is a good time for reading. The longer days and the fact that many of us take vacation offer the opportunity to catch up on the list of books that have accumulated on our desks, shelves, and electronic readers.

Last week, I mentioned two books that would make great additions to your reading list: Nose Dive by Harold McGee and The Joy of Sweat by Sarah Everts. Another book that made it to the pile on my desk is The Chemical Age: How Chemists Fought Disease and Famine, Killed Millions, and Changed Our Relationship with the Earth by Frank A. von Hippel. The author—a professor of ecotoxicology at Northern Arizona University (NAU)—wanted “the reader to achieve a better understanding of why we are where we are in terms of food security, disease outbreaks, chemical warfare and the environmental movement,” according to NAU’s Research News. As such, the book is at the intersection of public health, agriculture, and war, and it offers the reader a satisfying mix of deep research with good storytelling peppered with anecdotes.

Von Hippel explores humanity’s constant war with famine and disease, and how in our quest to eradicate disease vectors and protect crops, we have developed chemicals that damage our health and drive species toward extinction. In The Chemical Age, he captures this history of pesticides—from the potato blight tragedy of the 1840s to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960s.

The first section of the book focuses on the Irish potato famine, also known as the Great Hunger. Von Hippel immerses us in the desperation of a nation that faced mass starvation when a funguslike organism infested the potato plant, a staple food of the poor at the time.

The second section concentrates on diseases transmitted to humans by animals, including malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and bubonic plague. Von Hippel tells us about the pioneering work of Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, the fathers of bacteriology, who established the germ theory of disease and unleashed a revolution in medicine.

Part 3 is dedicated to war. Fritz Haber features in this section as the chemist behind not only the process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen to produce fertilizers but also the first chemical weapons deployed by the German armies during World War I.

The fourth section of The Chemical Age charts the birth of the environmental movement. By the second half of the 20th century, it was clear that overuse of pesticides was not only causing organism resistance and loss of effectiveness but also substantial loss of wildlife. The publication of Silent Spring in 1962 was a watershed moment that mobilized communities to use their voices in decisions that affected the environment around them.

The epilogue is a fascinating read, as von Hippel explains his personal motivation “to write about the interplay of scientists, chemistry, progress and tragedy.” He reveals his family connections to James Franck—his great-grandfather—a chemist and Nobel laureate who had worked with Fritz Haber to test the efficacy of gas masks during World War I and later resigned his post as director of the Second Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Göttingen to protest Nazi antisemitism.

Franck is known for an anecdote related to his Nobel medal, which he had entrusted to Niels Bohr for safekeeping. In 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark, chemist George de Hevesy prevented the German army from taking Franck and Max von Laue’s medals by dissolving them in aqua regia and placing the solution on a shelf in his lab at the Niels Bohr Institute. After the war, he returned to find the acid solution undisturbed, extracted the gold out of the acid, and sent it to the Nobel Society, which then recast the Nobel Prize medals.

All in all, the book is a fascinating account of the unintended consequences of humanity’s battle with famine and disease.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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