The Role of Chemistry in History

The Role of Chemistry in History header image 2

History of Herbicides and Early Beginnings of Agent Orange

April 24th, 2008 · 1 Comment ·

Intro to Agent Orange | History of Herbicides and Early Beginnings of Agent Orange | Use of Agent Orange in Vietnam | Effect of its use in Vietnam

Growth regulating chemicals and other synthetic plant hormones were first experiment with and created in the late 1920’s and throughout the 1930’s

However, it was in 1942 that E.J Kraus, the head of the Botany Department of the University of Chicago discovered that in high concentration 2,4,-D contained the toxic properties necessary for crop destruction and limitation of crop growth.

He then pitched this idea to the National Academy of Sciences, which parlayed itself into a contract with the U.S. Army to test chemicals for their herbicidal properties.

Because of Kraus’s work, in 1944 the U.S. Army made herbicidal research a main component at the Biological Research and Testing Center at Camp Detrick.

In 1945 it was the conclusion of the Testing Center that ammonium thiocyanate could be used as a viable herbicide to deny the Japanese of jungle vegetation as cover. However, the war ended just as the first canisters of the chemical were on route to the pacific theater.

What’s interesting about 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, the two chemicals that would end up being “Agent Orange”, is that while they were created during WWII for military use their most immediate application was after the war for civilian use.

o 2,4,-D became the most widely used herbicide in America with both farmers using it to clear weeds and home owners using it to maintain their lawns.
o 2,4,5-T was the preferred herbicide for us in clearing railroad tracks, power-line routes and cattle trails (2,4,5-T much more effective and destroying woody plants).


By 1960 3% of the country was being sprayed by herbicides

It has been suggested by one writer, Thomas Whiteside, that the commercial success of Herbicides was the reason that the press and general public did not take much notice of the massive herbicide operations in Vietnam in the 1960’s. At the time herbicides were a new wonder chemical that was helping many people across the country and U.S. citizens did not think then that it could be harmful or consider its use as a form of chemical warfare.

Another interesting side note about the creation of Agent Orange is on the subject of the prototypes molecule the U.S. Army used to create 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The Prototype was 2,3,5,-Triiodobenzoic acid and it was serendipitously discovered to be an effective defoliant By Dr. Arthur Galston in 1943 when he was a graduate student looking for ways to speed up the growth of soybeans. Even though he had nothing to do with the creation of Agent Orange, as a professor at Yale during the Vietnam War he expressly stated his feelings of responsibility and guilt for it being used as a weapon of war and was one of the most instrumental and influential scientists in the effort to finally have the President stop it’s use.

Tags: Agent Orange