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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

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

By: Frank A von Hippel(Author)
389 pages, 28 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
The Chemical Age
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  • The Chemical Age ISBN: 9780226829562 Paperback Dec 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • The Chemical Age ISBN: 9780226697246 Hardback Sep 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

For thousands of years, we've found ways to scorch, scour, and sterilize our surroundings to make them safer. Sometimes these methods are wonderfully effective. Often, however, they come with vast unintended consequences – typically not truly understood for generations.

The Chemical Age tells the captivating story of the scientists who waged war on famine and disease with chemistry. With depth and verve, Frank A. von Hippel explores humanity's uneasy coexistence with pests, and how their existence, and the battles to exterminate them, have shaped our modern world. Beginning with the potato blight tragedy of the 1840s, which led scientists on an urgent mission to prevent famine using pesticides, von Hippel traces the history of pesticide use to the 1960s, when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring revealed that those same chemicals were insidiously damaging our health and driving species toward extinction. Telling the story of these pesticides in vivid detail, von Hippel showcases the thrills and complex consequences of scientific discovery. He describes the invention of substances that could protect crops, the emergence of our understanding of the way diseases spread, the creation of chemicals used to kill pests and people, and, finally, how scientists turned those war-time chemicals on the landscape at a massive scale, prompting the vital environmental movement that continues today.

For fans of Jared Diamond and Rachel Carson, The Chemical Age is a dynamic and sweeping history that exposes how humankind's affinity for pesticides made the modern world possible – while also threatening its essential fabric.


Author’s Note
Part 1: Famine
1. Potato Blight (1586–1883)

Part 2: Plague
2. Marsh Fever (2700 BCE–1902)
Chapter 3. Black Vomit (1793–1953)
Chapter 4. Jail Fever (1489–1958)
Chapter 5. Black Death (541–1922)

Part 3: War
6. Synthetic Chemicals of War (423 BCE–1920)
Chapter 7. Zyklon (1917–1947)
Chapter 8. DDT (1939–1950)
Chapter 9. I. G. Farben (1916–1959)

Part 4: Ecology
10. Resistance (1945–1962)
Chapter 11. Silent Spring (1962–1964)
Chapter 12. Wonder and Humility (1962–The Future)

Map of Place Names
Literature Cited

Customer Reviews


Frank A. von Hippel is professor of ecotoxicology at Northern Arizona University. He has taught ecology field courses in over twenty countries and conducted research in the Americas, Africa, and Australia. He hosts the Science History Podcast.

By: Frank A von Hippel(Author)
389 pages, 28 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Media reviews

"The book is a fascinating account of the unintended consequences of humanity's battle with famine and disease."
Chemical & Engineering News

"There is much to appreciate about The Chemical Age."

"It's the most fascinating book I've read in years."
– George Schaller

"This book confirmed for me so much of what has shaped my environmental concern, and I found many aspects of it especially powerful and appealing. For one, it has a strong narrative force and telling anecdotes that will engage a broad reading audience. Second, like all good narratives it is informed by a moral sensibility. It is a rich diversion, with broad temporal and geographic coverage."
– Mark Lytle, author of The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement

"Von Hippel has accomplished something remarkable in having written a book on science and modern history covering famine, plagues, wars, and ecology that is very readable and even compelling [...] Highly recommended."

"The Chemical Age by Frank A. von Hippel is a rich source of information on human inventions related to the fight against diseases and hunger, as well as a thought-provoking compilation of issues emphasizing the great need for humanitarian and environmental ethics."

"The story of Fritz Haber's work to feed humanity on the one hand and gas it on the other lies at the center of The Chemical Age [...] Von Hippel is interested in the ways people have solved problems with chemicals and, in the process, created new problems."
New York Review of Books

"I recommend The Chemical Age to everyone that is curious or concerned about the current pandemic. Von Hippel's narratives on epidemics should help lay public understand how natural epidemics arise and are characterized [...] [Buy], read, and enjoy."
Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management Journal

"The Chemical Age is a timely exploration of our environmental present."
Physics Today

"I've focused on human-chemical interactions for 67 years and shared enemies with Rachel Carson, yet I learned a great deal from this fascinating book. Chemicals can avert hunger and disease, but unwisely used could destroy our future. Read The Chemical Age and donate copies to your local high schools and colleges!"
– Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb

"Ecologist Von Hippel delves into historical accounts to tell the stories of the scientists who developed pesticides and chemical weapons, and trace their impact on the world."

"Von Hippel takes us through the surprising relationship of disease and war, from how the treatment of malaria facilitated colonialism, how weapons against disease carrying pests were used against human beings in war and riot, the development of tear gas, and the coming insect apocalypse."
– Jessa Crispin, Public Intellectual Podcast

"Hippel's leisurely and wide-ranging history will raise readers' awareness about the power of toxic chemical compounds introduced into our environment."
Library Journal

"Reveals that while the chemical industry has averted famines and vanquished diseases, it has also driven countless species towards extinction."
New Scientist

"A superbly written and riveting account of scientific myopia: the employment of chemistry to solve major problems while doggedly oblivious to the consequent ravages those solutions cast upon life on earth. Destined to be a classic, this would top the fiction bestseller list, except it is solid truth. The Chemical Age should be required reading for everyone."
– Thomas E. Lovejoy, coeditor of Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere

"Our love affair with industrial chemicals may have heroic origins, but it also has Promethean consequences that we are only beginning to fully comprehend. The Chemical Age is an essential addition to this comprehension, and a delightful mix of deep research and vivid anecdotal storytelling."
– McKay Jenkins, author of Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet

"The Chemical Age is a vital and refreshing synthesis of public health, agricultural development, war, and pesticide history. With crisp writing, von Hippel draws from an impressive breadth of sources to tell a revealing and truly thought-provoking story."
– David Kinkela, author of DDT and the American Century: Global Health, Environmental Politics, and the Pesticide That Changed the World

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