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

The wide angle

The Chemical Age connects the sources of human misery throughout history—famine, plague, and war—and follows historical currents to their unpredictable destinations, including world wars and environmental destruction. A force behind these historical currents is the dynamic field of chemistry, pushed ever forward by some of the most brilliant minds of the modern era. My grandfather and great-grandfather were deeply involved in many of the events covered in the book, and so I heard about the history during my childhood (see the epilogue). That sparked my interest, as did my career in the fields of ecology and ecotoxicology.

I was born and raised in Alaska, where I spent much of my youth outdoors—playing in the woods with other neighborhood kids, working on our farm, hiking and cross-country skiing in the mountains next to town, and beachcombing for glass floats lost by Japanese fishing boats. I graduated early from high school and worked on a collective farm—a kibbutz—in the Negev Desert of Israel, where I transplanted date trees and fixed broken irrigation pipes. Afterwards, as a student at Dartmouth College, I professionalized my passion for the outdoors by majoring in biology with an emphasis in ecology. During my college years, I worked for a term for Arthur Westing at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Arthur had led the Herbicide Assessment Commission during the Vietnam War (see Chapter 12), and from him I learned about the environmental toll imposed by war. I also studied tropical ecology for a term in remote rainforests of Costa Rica, where I learned how to conduct fieldwork as a professional ecologist. I continued my training in the ecological sciences as a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. During these years, I conducted fieldwork in California and a remote African rainforest, and I taught tropical ecology in the Peruvian Amazon.

My first faculty job was an assistant professorship with Columbia University teaching field ecology courses in Arizona and Mexico. During this time, I also continued my field research in Africa. I then moved back to Alaska and worked as a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage for 17 years. Throughout these years, I taught field ecology courses in many parts of the world, including a semester in Chile, a semester in Argentina, two semesters at sea sailing around the world, and many shorter courses in Latin America. I also conducted field research in Latin America, Australia, and Alaska. I ended up teaching field courses and conducting field research in about 30 countries and in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans, as well as travelling through an additional 15 countries.

As my career developed in academia, I focused more and more of my research on the effects of pollution on human and wildlife health. I especially focused on the health and environmental effects of contaminants in tribal communities where pollution from Cold War military installations and mining operations constitutes an environmental injustice. These long-term projects, still underway, in places such as St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, and Groote Eylandt in Australia, allowed me to witness the impacts of environmental pollutants on some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems in the world.

I began writing The Chemical Age while teaching a field course in Argentina, and my international work allowed me to write with a broader perspective. The Chemical Age covers historical events that occurred throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. My work in these continents allowed me to see the cultural and political contexts of historical events in a place-based manner, and to visit many of the sites described in the book.

On one serendipitous occasion, while strolling through the grounds of my hotel in Bangalore, India, I stumbled upon Ronald Ross’s laboratory where he examined the internal organs of thousands of mosquitoes in search of the malaria parasite. By happenstance, just after I had written the chapter on Ross (Chapter 2), my wife and I had reserved lodging at a hotel that contained his lab amidst other 19-century ruins. History is full of happenstance, and I was delighted to relive it through my accidental wandering.

I also found myself intrigued by the many ways that chemical history is interconnected. I discovered these connections as I researched all parts of the book, as when Monsanto Corporation parodied Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Chapter 11) by invoking a resurgence of the Irish potato famine (Chapter 1), malaria (Chapter 2), yellow fever (Chapter 3), typhus (Chapter 4), and bubonic plague (Chapter 5) as the natural consequences of eliminating pesticides.