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November 24, 2010

Why didn’t Germany use DDT during World War II to stop typhus epidemics?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 9:52 am

There are two possible answers to the question of why the Germans didn’t use DDT to stop the typhus epidemics that killed so many people at the tail end of World War II.

1.  DDT was not available in Germany.

2. Germany had already discovered that DDT has dangerous side effects.

I don’t know the answer to this question myself, but I am hoping that a knowledgeable reader can provide the answer.

After doing a little research on the Internet, I learned that DDT was first synthesized in 1874 by German chemist Othmar Zeidler, but DDT was not used as an insecticide until 1939. It was in 1939 that Swiss scientist Paul Hermann Muller discovered the insect-killing properties of DDT.

DDT was used for years in America until it was discovered that when DDT is ingested by humans, it is stored in body fats and can be passed on to nursing babies.

According to this web site:

“Low levels of DDT in humans are harmless but large concentrations can cause severe health problems such as liver cancer. When applied to an insect, DDT is easily absorbed through the body surface. After attacking the nervous system, DDT causes paralysis. Some insects have a resistance to DDT, thereby making the insecticide ineffective. These resistant insects are able to reproduce and pass this trait on to their offspring.”

If the Germans knew this in the 1940s, why didn’t they tell us?
It was not until the 1970s that Americans began to worry about the harmful effects of DDT on the environment. In June 1972, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) canceled all use of DDT on crops. Did the Germans know this 30 years before we figured it out?

The Dachau concentration camp was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945, but the former inmates had to be kept inside the prison enclosure until all danger of spreading the typhus epidemic, that was killing the prisoners, had passed.

Just before the Americans arrived, up to 400 prisoners had been dying each day in the typhus epidemic which was out of control, according to the testimony of the Chief Doctor of the camp at the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal in November 1945.

DDT was sprayed directly on the prisoners at Dachau by the American liberators

On May 2, 1945, the American military’s 116th Evacuation Hospital arrived at Dachau and set up operations. According to a report made on May 20, 1945, there were 140 prisoners still dying each day in the camp; the principle causes of death were starvation, tuberculosis, typhus and dysentery. On the day the Americans arrived, there had been 4,000 prisoners in the prison hospital and an unknown number of sick prisoners in the barracks who had been receiving no medical attention.

Typhus ward set up by the Americans in the SS barracks

There were 18 one-story wooden SS barrack buildings in the Dachau army garrison, next door to the concentration camp, which were converted into hospital wards by the Americans. The American Army medical personnel were housed in the SS administration building. A Typhus Commission arrived and began vaccinating all medical personnel and the prisoners. There was a daily dusting of DDT to kill the lice which spreads typhus.  The photos above show a prisoner being dusted on the top of his head to kill the lice that spreads typhus and typhus patients in the typhus ward set up in the SS barracks next door to the Dachau concentration camp.

American reporters view the bodies of prisoners who had died of typhus in the Dachau concentration camp

The photo above was taken on May 3, 1945 when American reporters were brought to see the bodies of Dachau prisoners who had died of typhus.  This was the day that the sick prisoners in the Dachau barracks were taken to the hospital wards set up by the Americans. The sick prisoners were bathed, dusted with DDT powder and given clean pajamas to wear; their old prison clothes were burned.

On this same day, May 3, 1945, the American liberators were busy filming the fake gas chamber that they had just constructed in the shower room at Dachau.  The film of the fake gas chamber was shown at the Nuremberg IMT on Nov. 29, 1945.

By July 1945, the typhus epidemic in the Dachau concentration camp had been completely brought under control by the US Army doctors, and all the prisoners had either been released or moved to a Displaced Persons camp at Landsberg am Lech. Around 2500 prisoners died of typhus before the epidemic could be stopped. Before being allowed to leave, the former inmates at Dachau were tested for any signs of typhus by the American doctors, as shown in the photo below.

Dachau prisoners had to pass a typhus test before they could leave Dachau

So why couldn’t the Germans have done what the Americans did?  Just spray all the prisoners with DDT to kill the lice, and burn all the clothes that were filled with lice.  Was there no DDT available in Germany?  Why didn’t America send a couple of tons of DDT over to them?

Instead, the Germans used Zyklon-B in Gaskammeren (gas chambers) at Dachau to kill lice in the prisoners’ clothing.  The American liberators announced to the world, the day after Dachau was liberated, that the Germans were killing people in gas chambers, and that the Germans had cruelly ordered the prisoners to take off their clothes and hang them on hangars before going into the gas chamber.

Famous photo taken outside the disinfection chambers at Dachau concentration camp

Famous photo of a disinfection chamber door at Dachau concentration camp

What about typhus vaccine?  The American soldiers had been vaccinated before being sent overseas.  Why couldn’t America have sent some vaccine to Germany through the Red Cross?


  1. Zyklon B was used instead of DDT. I thought everyone knew that!

    Comment by Gordon Bennett — April 27, 2015 @ 1:25 am

  2. According to Wikipedia, (

    The German Empire was interested in DDT because it was effective in fighting the potaoe beetle. In 1942, the Reichsministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft (Ministry for Nutrition and Agriculture) ordered 10.000t of Gesarol (which corresponds to 500t in its pure form) from the developper Geigy, who cooperated with Scherin AG to produce this large amount in 1943. In April 1943, Geigy’s factory in Grenzach (Baden) started producing DDT, too.

    In late 1942, the Wehrmacht introduced Lauseto (produced by IG Farben), and in early 1944, an analysis by Schering found that Lauseto contained 15% DDT. IG Farben then granted payment of licence fees for Lauseto to Geigy, as well as for IG Farben’s newly developped fly-insecticide Gix.

    However, I.G. Farben couldn’t produce more DDT because they did not have enough Chloral, which is necessary to produce DDT.

    In mid-1942, the American Department of Agriculture received a few samples of Gesarol from Geigy. DDT was tested for effectiveness and side-effects in 1942/3, and in mid-1944, methods for effectively producing and applying DDT were developped. By the end of 1944, 900t DDT were being produced for the US Military, by the end of the war, the production reached 1350t a month.

    DDT was first used to fight lice during a typhus epidemic in Neaples in 1943/44.

    More about DDT:

    “Reshaping Technology in Wartime: The Effect of Military Goals on …”

    Click to access perkins_ddt.pdf

    Comment by Rachel — November 24, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  3. American Heritage Winter 2000 Volume 15 Issue 3

    The Short-Lived Miracle of DDT

    DDT was a savior in the 1940s and a curse by the 1960s. Its story shows how a technology that does enormous good can also do enormous harm.
    and also…

    “Now It Can Be Told”
    (Geigy Company Press Release), 1944

    The True Story of DDT, Which Alleviated The Typhus Epidemic in Italy; Amazing Preventive Possibilities in Other Fields; Tremendous Benefits to Agriculture; scientists Do 8 Years’ Research in 2; End of Possibilities Not in Sight.

    A chemical formula which lay dormant for almost seventy years in a dusty volume of “Berichte der Chemischen Gesellschaft” (the Reports of the German Chemical Society) has suddenly come to life as the progenitor of a spectacular series of insecticidal compositions that seem destined to achieve in preventive medicine an effectiveness already likened to that of penicillin and sulfa drugs in the curative field.

    Apart from their sensational preventive properties, dramatically demonstrated in the Army’s virtual conquest of typhus, the compositions, in results already attained and in hopes induced by current tests, encourage the belief that they will bring about an economic revolution in the field of agriculture by crops saved from the scourge of insect pests.

    When the Geigy patent application was filed in Washington, the military authorities, having come upon a potential major weapon, clamped down a firm secrecy order which had prevented, until last summer, the revelation of any phase of the amazing developments involved. Now, Geigy Company Inc., New York, is able to disclose some of the major aspects of a remarkable discovery. . . .

    . . . In 1939 the potato crop of Switzerland was seriously threatened by the imported (from America) Colorado Potato Beetle. Geigy made available to the Swiss entomologist, Dr. R. Wiesmann, a composition carrying the designation “Experiment #G1750” which was later called “Gesarol.” Dr. Wiesmann conducted experiments in the Swiss Federal Experimental Agricultural Station at Waederswil and confirmed Geigy’s results which culminated in the control of the destructive Potato Beetle. Shortages of the accepted insecticides, arsenates, pyrethrum and rotenone further encouraged the investigations which have revealed DDT compositions as the outstanding development in the insecticide field for many years. . . .

    When the United States entered the War it became manifest….

    Comment by Budham — November 24, 2010 @ 10:14 am

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