Frank A. von Hippel


On his book The Chemical Age: How Chemists Fought Famine and Disease, Killed Millions, and Changed Our Relationship with the Earth

Cover Interview of September 02, 2020

In a nutshell

The Chemical Age is the story of intense famines, ceaseless wars, ravaging diseases, and ecological disasters, told through the personal lives of the scientists who strove to either halt calamity or facilitate it. The book orbits around the human propensity to innovate without thinking through potential consequences.

Perhaps no field of scholarship illustrates this better than that of chemistry. Since the origin of organic chemistry in 1828, scientists have synthesized hundreds of thousands of chemicals. Many of these chemicals were designed to fight the scourges of humanity, such as famine and infectious diseases, while other chemicals were designed to kill people. Scientists engaged in extraordinary risks to advance and test their chemical innovations, and some participated in the most egregious crimes in history. All the while, these novel chemicals were broadcast throughout the world, where they poisoned wildlife, disrupted ecosystems, and compromised human health.

Ultimately, the realization of these unintended consequences gave rise to the global environmental movement. I would like the reader to gain an appreciation for human history through the lens of chemistry—for the ways in which famine, plagues, war, and ecology are inextricably bound; for the desperate races to save society from collapse as crops failed and diseases swept across national boundaries; and for the outsized role of innovative scientists in humanity’s trajectory.