The Man who Accidentally Killed the Most People

In 1916, Thomas Midgley, Jr -- a young engineer--was tasked with creating a new effective and cheap form of fuel to stop the engine knocking that cars had at the time. After 5 years he would eventually discover what he thought was a perfect solution called Tetraethyl Lead or Ethyl. While this fuel did stop the knocking, it faced a huge problem that ended in the death of millions of people and still plagues the world today.

Lead wasn't seen as a huge threat and many concerns for it were dismissed at the time. It is, however, incredibly toxic at incredibly low levels. It can fuse to bone and is most harmful to the brain. For young children this can lead to permanent delayed learning, decreased IQ, and increased behavioral and mental problems. Many studies have also shown that the rate of increase in crime around the world from the 1950s to the 1990s is shockingly similar to the increase in Lead levels just 20 years earlier. It is not known if these values correlate, but this same pattern can be found in many other countries. Another effect of Lead exposure is a hardening of the arteries, leading to a much higher chance of cardiovascular disease. A study in 2018 states that with all this, Lead was likely responsible for around 250,000 heart disease-related deaths each year in the US alone. Over the past century, the Lead from Midgley's invention had probably been responsible for over 100 million deaths worldwide.

Some might argue that Midgley couldn't have known how much of a problem his invention would bring to the world over a century later and that the increase in crime was the people's choice, so he should not be held responsible. However, Midgley did know of the risks that Ethyl brought, but didn't discuss them or even approve of their existence. He even tried to prove its safety by touching and inhaling it himself. He would later turn down any interviews and public talks he was asked to attend because he would spend most of that time recovering from Lead poisoning himself. He knew firsthand that his product was extremely dangerous, but still decided to not share the risks with the public. Thanks to him millions of people were letting Lead into the atmosphere through their cars. Now modern-day humans carry over 1000 times more Lead in their bodies than our early ancestors.

I believe that Midgley is somewhat accountable as he did know that ethyl was dangerous but still tried to sell it to the public to maximize profit. While most of the increase in crime is probably just due to human choice, I do think that Lead levels must have some effect on it. I think this famous quote by Benjamin Franklin about the dangers of Lead explains this concept pretty well, "You will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist before it is generally received and practiced on." 



Do you think his invention is to blame for the increase in crime and death?

Do you think Midgley should be held acountable for the deaths his invention might have caused?

Did you find this topic interesting and why?'s%20dark%20discovery&text=So%20Midgley%20was%20sent%20back,make%20money%20for%20General%20Motors.&text=Within%20just%20a%20few%20months,%3A%20tetraethyl%20lead%20(TEL).



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  • This topic is very intresting and its hard to make predictions on leads effects. I think Midgley could take some blame for deaths and health problems but there isn't enough evidence to connect his invention to the rising crime rates.

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