The Role of Chemistry in History

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World War II

April 23rd, 2008 · 1 Comment ·

Introduction / DDT molecule / Malaria / World War II

Environmental Problems / Insect Resistance / BeginUsing Again?  /  References



  • Disease is a major factor in deciding the outcome of war:
  • Examples:
  • American Revolution: both sides suffered losses from scurvy, cerebrospinal fever, yellow fever, typhus, and malaria.
  • Spanish-American War: More of our troops in Cuba and the Caribbean were killed because of yellow fever and malaria than from the Spanish.
  • Out of all the major wars we have fought only in World War II, when extensive use of DDT to kill mosquitoes and protect the troops from disease, were the total number of deaths from disease lower than from wounds.
  • Certain insects are carriers of disease such as:
    • Mosquitoes-malaria, dengue, yellow fever
    • Lice-typhus
    • Flies-dysentery
  • At the beginning of WWII the Army’s medical department laid out a plan of protection for the troops against insects that carry these diseases. The plan included:
    • pyrethrum spray
    • protective clothing
    • screens and nets
    • rotenone powder
  • But the Japanese monopolized the source of rotenone and the pyrethrum crop in Africa was destroyed.
  • Because of this the troops in Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and Northern Africa fell ill due to Malaria. DDT was needed badly.
  • By May 1943, DDT powder was deemed safe and effective by the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine and was distributed to troops to douse their clothing with to protect them from lice.
  • In December 1943, the U.S. army invaded and occupied the city of Naples, Italy where typhus was prevelant. The army set up dusting stations around the city and civilians would come and soldiers would douse them with DDT powder.
  • By March 1944: 2, 250,000 people were doused and the typhus epidemic in Italy was stopped. Also no American soldier contracted typhus in Italy.
  •  Also, as the Allied Forces in 1944 began to fight the Germans along two fronts: one through Northern France and the other through Southern Italy.
  • To slow down the Allied troops advance through Italy, the Germans breached the dikes in southern and central Italy which had been in place to dry up the land and protect it from the anophelines mosquitoes, carriers of malaria.  With the re-flooding of the land the mosquitoes came back.  The Allied Forces sprayed the DDT and were able to continue their advance through Italy.
  • Overall, the amazing effect of DDT on insect eradication proved useful in times of war to protect soldiers from contracting those diseases carried by insects and help them to stay healthy and continue to fight.
  • If the Allied Forces had not obtained DDT the troops would most likely have perished in Italy due to malaria and Germany could very well have ended up winning the war.


Tags: DDT