Thomas Midgley was a well known chemist and inventor who held over 100 patents in his lifetime, but he’s most notorious for two chemicals which wreaked untold havoc on the environment: leaded gasoline and Freon, the first CFC. During his lifetime, Midgley was met with great praise, but his legacy has become tarnished since the full effects of his inventions are now understood. Billions have been affected by him, to the point of death, and many more are still suffering to this day. Despite this significant impact to the environment and human development he is relatively unknown.
Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania in 1889, Thomas Midgley was the son of an inventor and graduated from Cornell University in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Four years later, he began working at Dayton Research Laboratories, a subsidiary of General Motors, under the supervision of Charles F. Kettering. Their task: Find a solution to the problem of “knocking” in automobile engines. In 1921, after starting with iodine (because he thought dying the fuel red would cause it to absorb more heat), and then working his way down the periodic table, and finding “most of them had no more effect than spitting in the Great Lakes,” Midgley finally discovered that the addition of tetraethyl lead, or TEL, would successfully eliminate the problem.
General Motors, as well as many other companies around the world, had already been selling an ethanol-gasoline blend to reduce knocking, which burned fairly cleanly and was highly effective. However, ethanol couldn’t be patented and offered no viable profit for GM, so they were on the lookout for new additives to use. Marketing TEL under the name “Ethyl” (because lead was already known to be poisonous), GM expected to rake in massive amounts of money.
Later in 1923, GM established the General Motors Chemical Company in order to produce TEL, and Midgley was named vice president. Many leading medical experts, including the US Surgeon General, expressed grave concerns over the potential health problems which would arise from the use of TEL, but their views were swept under the rug by GM, even after workers at their plant began to succumb to lead poisoning. In fact, at a plant they supported jointly with Standard Oil (now known as Exxon Mobil), more than 80 percent of the staff died or suffered severe lead poisoning. (TEL was dubbed “loony gas” by the few survivors because the victims would often go through bouts of insanity.) To assuage public fears, Midgley would often rub TEL on his bare hands, proclaiming: “I’m not taking any chance whatever.”
However, public opinion turned against TEL and it seemingly would have been quashed, if not for the utter lack of action from the federal government, which never informed the public of the dangers of TEL or commissioned an independent study on its effects. The Surgeon General did issue a report on TEL, but the findings were inconclusive and pushed to the side of public discourse. It took until 1995, when it was discovered lead additives reacted badly with the newly created catalytic converters, for TEL and its “offspring” to finally be banned in the US.
In 1930, after leaving TEL behind, Midgley was contracted by the Frigidaire division of General Motors to help discover an alternative to ammonia and propane, which were commonly used as refrigerants, but were flammable and highly toxic. In three days’ time, he helped synthesize dichlorodifluoromethane, the first of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which was named “Freon.” Just as it was with TEL, the health and environmental effects were not made publicly available until years after the fact. In a stroke of what some might call karma, Midgley contracted polio in 1940 and died in 1944, strangled to death by a complicated system of pulleys he invented to help others lift him out of bed. So ended the tale of a man who J.R. McNeill, an environmental historian, described as having “more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”