Open Access

Pyrethrum and the Second World War: Recontextualising DDT in the Narrative of Wartime Insect Control


Historians have long recognised that DDT’s fame began with extraordinary propaganda late in the Second World War, yet heroic narratives that centre the chemical still shape historical understanding. Two false assumptions inform much of the existing scholarship on wartime insect control: one is that without DDT the Allies had no protection from malaria and typhus; the other is that DDT was significantly more toxic than any alternative insecticide available. This paper tells a very different story of wartime insecticides. We recontextualise DDT in the wider wartime technological landscape and in so doing show the enduring significance of the natural insecticide, pyrethrum. DDT was never solely responsible for protecting troops and civilians from malaria and typhus and its deployment did not render all existing insecticides obsolete. Claims about the significance of DDT often work by writing out the existence of alternative methods of controlling vectors or by downplaying the efficacy of existing materials and practices.