The Man Who Harmed Every Living Organism On Earth…Twice

March 9, 2022

Thomas Midgley Jr. photo - National Academy of Sciences - Fair Use

Have you heard Thomas Midgley Jr.? He was an inventor born in 1889 and has the distinction of being one of the few humans on earth who has managed to harm virtually every living organism on the planet, not just once, but twice.

Thomas Midgley Jr. was a prolific inventor who managed to collect 100 patents during his life. But one of his most important invention caused irreparable harm to billions of humans, and has infected almost every cell on earth:

He invented leaded gasoline.

Midgley worked at GM at the time, where he was tasked with solving the problem of engine “knock”, or premature combustion. GM knew that adding Ethanol cured the issue, but Ethanol was not patentable, so they sold Midgley’s invention instead: Tetra-Ethyl Lead, or TEL.

TEL was so poisonous that employees working in their production plants died of lead poisoning, or developed hallucinations and mental disorders.

The effects of automotive lead emissions on humans would prove to be devastating for at least the next 50 years. Lead became so prevalent in the environment it affected human intelligence, and probably caused violent crime to rise. In 2015, a study shows that about half of all Americans have IQ-lowering levels of lead growing up.

Not content to poison humanity once, Midgley then went on to invent yet another substance that would devastate the planet: Freon, the first widely-used CFC in refrigeration.

Although Freon was a great replacement for the noxious gases that were used back in the 1920s, it had one inconvenient property: It destroyed the protective ozone layer in our upper atmosphere, exposing millions to dangerous UV rays from the sun.

This one man did so much harm to organisms on earth that environmental historian JR McNeill wrote that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history.”

In an ironic coda to his life of invention, Midgley caught Polio in his 50s, and his wife found him dead in his bed in 1944. He was strangled to death by his last invention: a system of ropes and pulleys he made to help him get out of bed.