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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1941: Thomas Midgley Jr. (1889–1944)

Few people attending the Priestley Medal award presentation in 1941 were surprised when recipient Thomas Midgley Jr. announced that he would demonstrate his key research contributions in experiments and motion pictures instead of deliver a formal acceptance speech. After all, this was a man known as much for his showmanship as for his achievements in chemistry.

Midgley’s career is defined by four major accomplishments. He eliminated the problem of “engine knock” by identifying the gasoline additive tetraethyl lead. He also developed a method to extract large quantities of bromine from seawater when he learned that bromine was needed to prevent tetraethyl lead from corroding engine valves and spark plugs.

In addition, Midgley discovered that dichlorodifluoromethane, also known as Freon, could be used as a nontoxic and nonflammable refrigerant. Finally, his research on natural and synthetic rubber contributed enormously to the scientific literature on these topics.

Before the audience during the 102nd ACS national meeting in 1941 in Atlantic City, N.J., Midgley demonstrated the nontoxic and nonflammable properties of Freon by inhaling the gas and softly exhaling it to extinguish a burning candle. He also demonstrated the antiknock effect of tetraethyl lead in a running engine and did several experiments involving rubber. Since he couldn’t bring the sea into the room, he instead showed a motion picture of bromine being extracted from seawater.

Midgley is considered one of the most creative chemists who ever lived. But he didn’t start out as a chemist. Midgley graduated from Cornell University in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering. His first job was as a draftsman and designer for National Cash Register Co. in Dayton, Ohio. A year later, Midgley’s father recruited him to be the first chief engineer, and later superintendent, for Midgley Tire & Rubber Co., a small company the elder Midgley had formed to improve cord tires and tread design.

The company eventually failed, however, and in 1916, Midgley took a job with the newly formed Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co., headed by Charles Kettering. Midgley had learned about Kettering’s research developments while at National Cash Register and became convinced that he also wanted to do research.

Midgley began working with Kettering, and their collaboration proved to be so fruitful that Kettering would later remark that “Midge” was the greatest discovery he had ever made. Midgley affectionately referred to Kettering as “Boss Ket.”

It was Midgley’s love for experimentation that turned him into a chemist. However, his discoveries were not made by accident. Rather, they were guided by his deep familiarity with the periodic table. For example, in searching for an antiknock compound, he knew he was looking for characteristics possessed by elements in a specific region of the periodic table. It then became a process of elimination. He identified the refrigerant dichlorodifluoromethane using a similar approach, but instead of several years, it took him just three days.

Midgley later became vice president of Ethyl Corp., vice president of Kinetic Chemicals, and director of the Ethyl-Dow Chemical Co.

In 1940, Midgley was struck with polio and lost the use of his legs. Despite his disability, he stayed active in the chemistry community, even serving as ACS president in 1944. In his presidential address titled “Accent on Youth,” Midgley pointed out that most great inventions had been made by people between the ages of 25 and 45. He had discovered tetraethyl lead at age 33 and Freon at age 40. He urged older chemists to make room for younger chemists to realize their maximum potential.

Midgley believed that he was no exception. A poet, Midgley concluded his address with the following poem, which seemed to foreshadow his own fate: “When I feel old age approaching, and it isn’t any sport, and my nerves are growing rotten, and my breath is growing short, and my eyes are growing dimmer, and my hair is turning white, and I lack the old ambitions when I wander out at night, though many men my senior may remain when I’m gone, I have no regrets to offer just because I’m passing on, let this epitaph be graven on my tomb in simple style, this one did a lot of living in a mighty little while.”

One month later, on Nov. 2, 1944, Midgley suffocated to death while sleeping, having become entangled in the ropes of a contraption he had invented to help him out of bed. He was only 55.—Linda Wang

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award