DDT (from its trivial name, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is one of the most well-known synthetic pesticides. It is a chemical with a long, unique, and controversial history.
First synthesized in 1874, DDT's insecticidal properties were not discovered until 1939, and it was used with great success in the second half of World War II to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops. The Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948 "for his discovery of the high efficiency of DDT as a contact poison against several arthropods." After the war, DDT was made available for use as an agricultural insecticide, and soon its production and use skyrocketed.
In 1962, Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson was published. The book catalogued the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the US and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Its publication was one of the signature events in the birth of the environmental movement, and resulted in a large public outcry that eventually led to DDT being banned in the US in 1972.
DDT was subsequently banned for agricultural use worldwide under the Stockholm Convention, but its limited use in disease vector control continues to this day and remains controversial.
Along with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the US ban on DDT is cited by scientists as a major factor in the comeback of the bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, from near-extinction in the contiguous US.