Stalin? Hitler? Attila the Hun? No, Thomas Midgley, Jr.. This kindly, grandfatherly looking gentleman was an inventor and chemist who was granted over a hundred patents and received numerous awards for scientific accomplishments during his lifetime. But this was before we realized what the impact of those accomplishments were.
One of his earliest inventions was leaded gasoline. Midgley was the cornerstone of a group of chemists working at General Motors who discovered that adding lead to gasoline prevented engines from knocking. Even though he had to take a long vacation in 1923 to recover from lead poisoning, Midgley still felt the additive was beneficial. After two deaths at their plant in Dayton, eight more at a Deepwater, New Jersey plant and five more at the Bayway Refinery in New Jersey, something had to be done to demonstrate the safety of his invention, so in 1924 a press conference was called. Midgley poured the lead additive over his hands and inhaled it’s vapors for a full minute to show how safe it was. It took him nearly a year to recover from the lead poisoning this brought on. The adverse health effects of pouring all that lead into the atmosphere weren’t known until much later.
Midgley’s next major invention involved refrigerants. Most of those in use at the time were toxic, flammable, or even explosive, so the search began for a safer compound. Midgley became the guiding light behind the team that solved the problem with a new inert, non-toxic compound they called Freon. It wasn’t known until much later that this boon to mankind would deplete the ozone layer.
Midgley developed polio later in life and again, wanting to help, invented a device that, by means of ropes and pulleys, would assist others in lifting him in and out of bed. On November 2, 1944, he accidentally entangled himself in the ropes of the device and strangled to death.
It has been said of Midgley that “he had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history”. An unfortunate epitaph for someone who just wanted to help.