NAU scientist Frank von Hippel connects famine, pandemics, war and ecology in new book, ‘The Chemical Age’

Frank von Hippel does research

From pesticides and chemical weapons to marshlands and battlefields, Frank von Hippel, ecotoxicology professor in the Northern Arizona University Department of Biological Sciences, traces the efforts of scientists to end famine and plagues, and to wage war, in his new book, “The Chemical Age: How Chemists Fought Famine and Disease, Killed Millions, and Changed Our Relationship with the Earth,” which was recently published by University of Chicago Press.

His intention was to write the book from the perspective of key scientists, revealing how their work altered history and impacted the environment. He has taught conservation biology for 24 years, led ecology field courses in more than 20 countries and conducted research in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia.

“It’s really about understanding why the scientists did what they did and what problems they were trying to solve,” von Hippel said. “I want 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.”

“The Chemical Age” is structured into four sections. Anchored in the Irish Potato Famine that started in 1845, the first section immerses the reader in the desperation of a people besieged by mass starvation when a fungus-like pathogen infested the leaves and roots of the potato plant.

“The famine occurred just before the critical scientific discoveries, both theoretical and empirical, that would launch the Chemical Age,” von Hippel said.

The second section focuses on four diseases—malaria, yellow fever, typhus and bubonic plague—that are vectored to humans by animals, and that played key roles in human history. He explained that in the 1870s, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch developed the germ theory of disease, which, he wrote, “led to the rapid discovery of pathogenic bacteria that caused a host of diseases, including anthrax, relapsing fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, diphtheria, tetanus and Asiatic cholera—all by 1890.”

The third section is about war “because of the cross-fertilization of scientific talent and chemistry that produced such startlingly toxic weapons and pesticides,” von Hippel said. Through storytelling, historic images and scholarly persistence, he tackles emotionally difficult topics and events of the 20th century, including the Holocaust.

He introduces readers to the German Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for fixing atmospheric nitrogen in order to efficiently produce fertilizers, which resulted in a huge increase in crop yields and banished the fear of famine in large parts of the world. Haber also deployed the first chemical weapons for the German military in World War I, and after the war he developed efficient insecticides for body lice, which transmit typhus. Later, the Nazis modified these insecticides to create the gas used to murder millions of people in concentration camps and went on to develop the most toxic chemical weapons ever produced, the organophosphate nerve gases, along with the related group of insecticides that are still in use today.

He also reveals the development of DDT during World War II and its subsequent promotion as a safe and odorless insecticide sold on the shelves of department stores like Bloomingdale’s. DDT was later found to devastate wildlife and disrupt hormone function in people.

The fourth section of “The Chemical Age” shows how the blanketing of pesticides over the landscape, leading to wide-scale wildlife declines, caused a backlash that gave rise to the environmental movement. This nascent movement was heavily influenced by author Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book “Silent Spring” warned of risks to the environment and future generations associated with the use of pesticides.

“Carson made ordinary people realize that they had a voice and role to play in decisions that affected their communities and the broader environment,” von Hippel said. “She explained how all of life is connected, allowing people to see their place in the natural world.”

He maintains that he wanted to avoid any type of advocacy in the book and that it could not have been written 20 years ago. Some of the information—particularly involving the interrogation of German scientists by British and American governments following World War II—was classified and unavailable until recently. He credited Mary DeJong, NAU Cline Library associate librarian, with helping him track down documents that previously had been top secret. He also corresponded with a retired chemist who had worked at a chemical weapons facility in the UK, who sent von Hippel a copy of a rare document.

Von Hippel reveals the depth of his family’s role in the history of science. He writes about his great-grandfather James Franck, a physics Nobel Laureate who worked with Haber, and his grandfather Arthur von Hippel, a pioneer in the field of materials science. Franck resigned his institute directorship in protest of Nazi anti-Semitism, and he and Arthur von Hippel relocated the family to America as the Nazis consolidated their power. The family’s escape from Germany was facilitated by the physicist Niels Bohr.

Von Hippel writes about famous scientists, such as Albert Einstein and Bohr, visiting with his grandfather and great-grandfather in their new home in America.

“Before the book project, I had not read much of the correspondence between my great-grandfather James Franck and other leading scientists as Europe descended into World War II. Reading those letters, I felt like I was looking over his shoulder as the responsibility of getting his family out of Nazi Germany weighed upon him, or as he corresponded with Einstein after the war to try to avert a famine in Germany.”

It took von Hippel nine years to write “The Chemical Age.”

“It definitely felt like this was something I had to finish,” he said. Given the interwoven stories of famine, pandemics, war and environmental destruction, von Hippel believes each person who reads it will be touched by a different story that relates to their own personal and family background.

His intended audience is the educated public, “people who want to read history and engage with primary sources,” he said. “Scholars have published excellent histories about famine, pandemics, chemical weapons, and the environmental movement, but there are no histories, I’ve found, that combine these together.”

The Impact of Pandemics on Human History: 7 p.m.  Sept. 26

As part of the 2020 Flagstaff Festival of Science, von Hippel will discuss how societies coped with malaria, yellow fever, bubonic plague and typhus, as described in his new book, “The Chemical Age.” A live Q&A session will follow. Access this presentation via the Festival of Science website.