The Most Problematic Man In History

It's no surprise that human beings are capable of incredible selfishness.

But the lengths to which this one man went for profit is spine chilling. This is the story of Thomas Midgley Jr. 


*The scene is set in the year 1916.* 

Thomas Midgley Jr was hired by a man named Kettering in 1916 to create a fuel additive for cars that was cheap, efficient, prevented engine knocking, and didn't smell terrible. 


In 1921, being the genius inventor that he was, he succeeded. 

The fuel additive he discovered? Tetraethyl LEAD. 

It was easily available, extremely cheap, and required only 1 part in 1000 to be effective. Ka-chingggg. 


"Can you imagine how much money we're going to make with this? We're going to make 200 million dollars, maybe even more" - Thomas Midgley Jr to Mr Kettering.


The invention was patented and rebranded to "ethyl" with NO mention of lead anywhere. 

This was followed by partnerships with General Motors, DuPont, and the Standard Oil Company. 


As a result, leaded gasoline got very very popular. 

So much so that the "ethyl" corporation had to build a new plant to keep up with demand. 

However, within the first two months, 5 workers died of lead poisoning & a dozen others fell ill. 

To address the public outcry, Midgley held a press conference where he inhaled tetraethyl lead for a full minute. He claimed it was harmless. 

However, being the brilliant scientist he was, he knew better. 

In reality, he had spent the whole of 1923 in Florida recovering from LEAD POISONING. 


Lead like calcium is stored in bones for YEARS. Lead breaks down the myelin sheath around axons. Common symptoms of lead poisoning are headaches, memory loss, and tingling. Behavioural problems and learning disorders are common after lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can cause cardiovascular events such as the thickening of arteries and subsequent heart attacks. 


The crazy part though? This was NOT new information. 

In 1786, Benjamin Franklin said that lead was used by humanity for far too long despite its known toxicity. 

"you will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known, and exist before it is generally received and practised on" - Benjamin Franklin. 


 Doctors and public health officials from Harvard, MIT, and Yale wrote to Midgley and warned him about using tetraethyl lead. They called it a "creeping and malicious poison".

Their concerns were dismissed. 

I mean, how much harm could a little lead really do? 

By the 1950s, millions across the globe were burning lead in their cars and releasing it into the air. Benjamin Franklin was probably rolling in his grave & saying WTF. 


"We do not feel justified in giving up what has come to the industry like a gift from heaven on the possibility that a hazard may be involved in it" - Frank Howard, President of Standard Oil.


Studies show that babies born with high levels of lead in their teeth were way more likely to fail out of high school. 

Globally, lead is said to be responsible for nearly 2/3rd of all unexplained intellectual disabilities. One study proposes that lead has caused a loss of an aggregate of 800 million IQ points. The world is less intelligent today thanks to leaded gasoline. 

Lead poisoning is said to have killed over 100 million people globally. Most of these deaths are due to one man - Thomas Midgley Jr. 


Japan was the first to have banned leaded fuel in cars in 1986, with other countries following suit. 

Algeria was the last to do so in 2021. 

The man responsible for the ban on leaded gasoline was Mr Clair Patterson. However, this is a story for another day (be sure to check out our next newsletter). 


This anecdote is a reminder of failing morals in the face of corporate greed. 

It is this greed that has made capitalism a failed system. 

It is this greed that is responsible for our changing climate. 

Will humanity ever learn how to fix its moral compass?

In 1940, Midgley contracted polio. Being the inventor that he was, he developed a harness system consisting of ropes and pulleys to help him get out of bed. However, on November 2nd 1944, he got caught in the ropes and was strangled to death by his own invention.
Hmmm…and they say karma isn’t real? 


P.S - Midgley was also responsible for introducing chlorofluorocarbons as a refrigerator gas. In the following decade, CFCs became very popular as aerosols. This led to the formation of the ozone hole. 

Back to blog