The Man Who Poisoned Us All

Is the jury seated? Let’s begin the trial.

The (spectral) gentleman in the dock tonight is named Kettering – Charles Franklin Kettering, rather tellingly called “Boss” for short by his associates during his lifetime. Born in 1876 on a small farm in Loudonville, Ohio, Kettering would grow up to become one of America’s most famous engineers. His pinched visage graced the cover of Time magazine in 1933, and he was mentioned in the same breath as Henry Ford and Thomas Alva Edison. He was the “Wizard of General Motors” – an inventor extraordinaire who became a vice president of the world’s largest manufacturing concern, and a culturally comforting transitional figure between the lone-wolf inventor-industrialists of the 19th century and the corporate research bureaucrats of the 20th. At his death in 1958, he left a charitable estate valued at $200 million – an unheard-of sum at that time, accumulated through methods to be touched on here.

His reputation has since faded to the burnished afterglow of all great fortunes. If Kettering is remembered at all by most Americans, it is as one-half of the Sloan-Kettering Institute, famous – ironically, as we shall see – for cancer research, and as namesake of the Kettering Foundation, which was initiated “to sponsor and carry out scientific research for the benefit of humanity.” Now, according to the foundation’s Web site, its scope has changed and broadened: “The primary question addressed by its research today is, ‘What does it take to make democracy work as it should?’” Seen in light of the Boss’s career, this mission statement, too, is not without a certain irony.

Kettering has joined the pantheon of good, gray philanthropists, his name adorning lecture halls and laboratories in New York City, Cincinnati and Oberlin, Ohio, and possibly elsewhere. There is even a Kettering University in Flint, Michigan – the name given GM’s research institute. His adoring biographer, Stuart Leslie, himself an engineer, says that Kettering “embodied the best aspirations of his own generation” and “as much as any man … helped shape the future in which we live out our lives.” Most of all, says Leslie, Kettering “made corporate bureaucracy work for him … Within the largest private organization of his time he fashioned a managerial role that proved technological entrepreneurship could flourish, and one man could still make a difference.”

Here I agree with the hero-worshiping biography. Boss Kettering has certainly made a difference in all of our lives. First of all, there are his automotive innovations, including his ignition systems, his electric self-starter that made drivers out of women; his four-wheel brakes, his ingenious crankcase ventilators and vibration dampers. All of these helped change America from a land of towns, villages and neighborhoods into a shopping-mall, fast-food, subdivision nation with as many cars as citizens, and as many parking lots as pastures.

More intimately, Kettering put his mark on our blood and bones, and within our cell structures and genetic material. I am referring to the burden of lead we all carry within ourselves, in quantities many times the natural background level. Kettering was the driving force, so to speak, behind the introduction of tetra-ethyl lead, or TEL, as a gasoline additive. Thanks to his work with TEL, there are an estimated 5 million tons of toxic lead in the soil near busy roads and highways. During the era of leaded gasoline, which lasted roughly from the mid-1920s to the mid-1980s, busy urban intersections absorbed no less than four or five tons of particulate lead per year from tailpipe emissions. As environmental toxicologist Howard Mielke notes, “That’s roughly equivalent to having a lead smelter at every major intersection in the United States. As a result, there is a very, very large reservoir of lead in soil.” Mielke is quoted in Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s fine book, “Trust Us, We’re Experts!,” which contains the story of TEL in abbreviated form. According to Rampton and Stauber, “In cities where there has been a high density of traffic, adults have blood-lead levels of about 20 to 25 micrograms per deciliter – roughly half the level at which lead exposure leads to impairment of peripheral nerves. No other toxic chemical has accumulated in humans to average levels that are this close to the threshold for overt chemical poisoning.”

Kettering also left his poisonous mark on our culture and institutions. As the point man in GM’s fight to use TEL to improve combustion, Kettering subverted the regulatory process supposedly in place to protect public health. He pioneered the tactic of creating and funding pseudo-non-profit organizations specifically designed to counter genuine medical research with profit-centered junk science. His PR campaign was disastrously effective: He and his friends at DuPont and Standard Oil won over regulators and public opinion alike to the idea that mechanical efficiency and capitalist expansion outweighed all considerations of environmental safety and biological integrity.

In the process, Kettering corrupted the supposedly humanist enterprises of science and philanthropy. The Kettering Foundation and Kettering Laboratory of Applied Physiology, children of Kettering’s wealth as GM’s largest single stockholder, served to bolster the values, monetary and otherwise, of the shares on which they were based. For decades, these puppet research institutions gave institutional credibility to the dangerously false idea that “low-level” lead exposures could be processed and eliminated by our systems, and hence posed no chronic health danger. His foundations functioned as factories for obfuscation and profit-protection, grinding out bogus reassurance the way GM plants mass-produced cars. They also worked tirelessly to manufacture an image of Kettering as a visionary benefactor of humanity, lionizing a man whose business decisions reflect a fanatical devotion to private wealth over public weal.

These foundations’ spiritual heirs remain with us. While Kettering’s name is honored as long as the endowment money flows, the anti-life forces have found an enemy to drag down: Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring” and the mother of`modern environmentalism. Carson’s attack on DDT, they claim, has led to its disuse in the Third World and to a consequent resurgence of mosquito-borne malaria. This claim is false, according to those scientists who are not in the pay of the insecticide industry. The real problem, they say, is that many years of over-spraying have created a race of super-skeeters, resistant not only to the universally toxic, spring-silencing DDT, but also to other, less apocalyptic pesticides. It’s a classic adaptation, just as Darwin would have predicted. But these people are more at home with social Darwinism, the imagined right of the rich to profit off the rest, and to do what they will to the planetary commons. The well-funded campaign to defame Rachel Carson, begun during her lifetime, captures the attention of the mainstream media. Yet Kettering – who introduced not only leaded gasoline, but also the ozone-destroying refrigerant Freon – is untouchable, his reputation secured within the ideological gated community inhabited by the very, very rich.

The accusations are as follows: Through the alchemy of corporate capitalism, Kettering turned base lead into golden wealth and power. He used science against humanity. He feathered his nest by poisoning his fellow man. He helped turn America into what it is now: a place where machines and banks and corporations thrive, and ordinary, non-shareholding human beings do not. Thanks to Charles Franklin Kettering and his henchmen, we now live in what could be called the Age of Lead – not only in terms of blood chemistry and soil contamination, but also of regard for truth and basic values.

The Scope of the Crime, and the Weapon

Lead is pure poison. It has no value or place within the human body, and its use invariably leads to disaster downstream. Lead is also a commodity and its mining and production major industries. Hence, the propagators of lead exert an invisible and orchestrated power that its less organized victims – that is, us – cannot match.

Lead is a soft, bluish-gray metal, common and easily worked. It is an element and so does not degrade: once present, it remains with us forever. Doctors have recognized lead as a toxin since at least the 4th century BC, when Hippocrates discussed lead workers’ susceptibility to colic and the Greek physician Dioscorides noticed that the metal makes “the mind give way.” According to writer Devin Ceartas, lead is particularly deadly because its molecular form is similar to minerals that do play important biochemical roles – specifically, calcium, zinc and iron. Lead ions supplant these other substances within our nervous system and elsewhere, but then behave very differently, disrupting the complex chemistry of the neurotransmitters that carry signals between nerve cells.

Lead alters enzymes, with dire effects on growth and metabolism. It interferes with the RNA processes that make proteins, which in turn affects our brain and kidney functioning. It attacks our mitochondria, our cellular powerhouses, and interferes with the processing of vital nutrients, such as vitamin D. Because our body mistakes lead for calcium, we accumulate the metal in our bones and teeth, which may be released much later, due to stress, disease or menopausal changes. Some researchers think that many of the traits associated with old age in our society are not “natural,” but instead reflect a lifetime’s gradual absorption of lead, which is linked to brain shrinkage and development of abnormal brain tissue.

A recent, large-scale government study found that blood-lead levels of 5 to 9 micrograms/deciliter – that is, under the 10 microgram level declared “safe” for women of childbearing age by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – are in fact not safe at all. Adults in this range were two-and-a-half times as likely to die of stroke and almost twice as likely to die of heart attack as those with very low blood-lead levels. The researchers believe this may be due to the fact that lead impairs the kidneys’ ability to filter blood, and alters the hormonal chemistry that maintains our veins and arteries. By now, the evidence is clear that there is no safe blood-lead level – yet OSHA regulations deem blood-lead levels of up to 40 micrograms per deciliter to be acceptable for adults.

It is children who are most vulnerable to lead. Fetal exposure is extremely damaging, as lead crosses the placental barrier. And when infants and children are exposed even to minute quantities of the metal, their neural pathways fail to form normally, leading to everything from decreased verbal and reasoning ability to memory loss to heightened impulsiveness and behavioral problems.  The symptoms of acute and chronic lead insult for children are numerous and varied: Headaches, irritability, anemia, short attention span, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, delayed development, weight loss and kidney disease are just some of the conditions associated with lead exposure. Poor children are at greatest risk, due to the problem of lead paint dust in older buildings and the fact that lead absorption is facilitated by iron and calcium deficiency, high-fat diets and empty stomachs.

As lead in a child’s blood rises, IQ drops. If the lead level goes up from less than 1 microgram per deciliter to 10 micrograms, IQ goes down an average of 7 points – and keeps on dropping as lead levels increase. A 1991 study showed that a remarkable 88 percent of American children under the age of 6 had lead levels high enough to stunt their mental and physical development. Even now, 20 years after the not-quite-total banning of leaded gasoline, 26 percent of all children in the U.S. – and about half of black children – have lead levels ranging from 5 to 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Lead is the enemy of intelligence and the friend of mayhem. Economist Rick Nevin’s work reveals a surprisingly close connection between lead poisoning and violence. According to Nevin, “65 to 90 percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in nine countries was explained by lead.” The crime rate in each of these countries closely tracks lead exposure levels of 20 years earlier. Studies show a link between lead and aggression: In 2001, researchers Paul Stretesky and Michael Lynch showed that counties with high lead levels had four times the murder rate of counties with low levels, after correcting for other factors. In 2002, well-known lead researcher Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh showed that youths arrested in that city had four times the lead levels of a control group. According to Nevin, “Lead decreases the ability to tell yourself, ‘If I do this, I will go to jail.’ ”

Despite lead’s manifold dangers to the young, toys from China – including the popular “Thomas and Friends” toy trains – were recalled in large numbers because of lead paint.  Something is wrong with this picture: the message of lead toxicity has not gotten through. Lead’s champions – and Kettering was the worst – must be shown for what they are. They are mass poisoners, treating the lives and well-being of others with sociopathic indifference.

Leaded fuel is still a huge problem, especially in the Third World. In 1996, over 90 percent of the gasoline sold in Africa and the Middle East contained lead. Consequently, according to the World Bank, 1.7 billion city dwellers in the developing world are endangered by airborne lead. As the number of cars grows in places like China, the problem will worsen dramatically. But as an executive of England’s Octel Company, one of the world’s largest producers of TEL, said to a Nation magazine writer: “There’s no proven health effect [of banning leaded gas], so there’s no need to do it precipitously.  … Because if you replaced lead with other components of petrol, then there’s a risk from anything.  … Petrol itself is a risk without lead.”

And in our country, municipal waste incinerators continue to spit out masses of lead ash – and even so-called “unleaded” gasoline still contains a legally allowed quantity of the element, creating millions of pounds of lead waste each year. Clearly, the spirit of Kettering lives on, and must be confronted. The Age of Lead will not end until we refuse to sacrifice ourselves and our children on the altar of technological “progress.” This process of healthy negation involves identifying the individuals as well as the historical forces that have led us into our predicament.

The Scenes of the Crime: Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, the World

Tetra-ethyl lead was the solution to two problems: First, engine knocking; second, Kettering’s flagging reputation at General Motors.  Kettering was the founder of DELCO, the auto parts maker based in Dayton, Ohio, which became the real heart of GM when the corporation was formed in the nineteen-teens by William Durant, Alfred Sloan and Pierre S. DuPont. In 1920, GM named Kettering VP and general manager of the newly created General Motors Research Corporation. That year, he was also placed on GM’s board of directors. He was a power within the company, avidly promoting GM’s grand strategy of planned obsolescence, or what Kettering referred to as “keeping the customer dissatisfied.”

He was also GM’s resident genius, widely liked by the public for his well-rehearsed folksiness, and frequently trotted out for PR purposes, where he enjoyed hearing himself pontificate. Kettering thought of himself as a serious scientist, but Albert Einstein is said to have introduced him once at Princeton as “the auto mechanic” – a comment that stung the image-conscious executive. It encouraged him in his long-term, high-profile hobby of researching photosynthesis at Antioch College, a quest that produced many tax write-offs and few major advances.

But Kettering’s stock within the company declined seriously when his major project of the early ‘20s, the copper-cooled engine – an attempt to outdo Ford in the field of simple, inexpensive automotive engineering – flopped. In June of 1923, he even offered his resignation, which was declined by GM CEO Alfred Sloan.  But his vanity and reputation had been injured, and he needed a winner – an idea that would make money for GM and restore his personal luster.

Kettering decided that the area to focus on was fuel, a subject that his Dayton laboratory staff had already been exploring. His goal was to increase the compression ratio of internal combustion engines, thereby improving power and efficiency. However, as engine compression grew, so did engine knock, caused by the non-combustion of less volatile distillates in the gasoline. These knocks could be strong enough to crack pistons. At the time, there were fears of a petroleum shortage, so it became a priority of both auto manufacturers and oil companies to get more use out of each drop of crude oil. Later, when abundant Middle-Eastern petroleum began flooding the market, GM discounted fuel economy as a selling point and instead emphasized higher octane as the key to increased engine performance, acceleration and raw speed.

One solution to the problem was to mix petroleum with alcohol, a natural and safe anti-knock ingredient available in almost unlimited quantities. But the problem here was economic, not technical. Alcohol was easy to make and unpatentable, and so could not create mega-profits for industry. By 1923, it was gasoline-powered internal combustion engines that GM had bet its future on, and it was the oil companies that were GM’s allies. What was needed was a substance that GM could license and control – a magic ingredient that maintained the dominance of petroleum over alcohol. (Kettering’s immense service to the cause of fossil-fuel dependence was recognized late in life when he received a medal from the American Petroleum Institute for “doing more than any other individual to promote petroleum products.”)

After hundreds or thousands of trials, Kettering’s research team discovered the anti-knock properties of tetra-ethyl lead, an obscure compound that worked even at extreme dilutions. It was known to be horrifically poisonous, but this was not necessarily a bad thing for GM, as it meant that the new additive could be produced in quantity only by industry, not by individuals. DuPont chemists quickly began synthesizing it – soon to be joined by Standard Oil of New Jersey – and Kettering was named president of the General Motors Chemical Company.

Health problems emerged immediately. Thomas Midgely and Carroll Hochwalt, Kettering’s chief assistants on the anti-knock project, suffered symptoms of lead poisoning in early 1923. By June 1924, two men at the Dayton blending plant were dead and 60 had suffered serious health effects.

Then the lead really hit the fan. An accident at Standard Oil’s TEL blending plant in Bayway, New Jersey, killed 10 workers outright (some sources say five) and sent about 50 others to the hospital, some in straitjackets. DuPont’s Deepwater, New Jersey plant, another TEL blending facility, soon became known as the “House of Butterflies” because of what people who worked there any length of time began seeing everywhere. In two years, the Deepwater plant experienced at least 300 cases of lead poisoning – in fact, 80 percent of the DuPont workers who handled TEL were affected. For the most part, they were the victims not of massive, sudden exposures, but of a slow accumulation of the poisonous substance over months. The New Jersey plant workers began to refer to TEL simply as “loony gas.”

Kettering could hardly have been unaware of TEL’s risks, when his own people were dropping like flies around him. Yet when TEL production was suspended after the Bayway disaster, he acted as though the whole thing were some kind of communist plot. According to accounts, “the Boss just glowered and sped down the road to Detroit, muttering about government interference and public ignorance.”

The Conspiracy

Here we come to the heart of the case. For it was in the spring of 1925, after the widely publicized New Jersey blending plant disasters, that the issue of TEL was debated by industry, public health experts and government officials, with the famous Boss Kettering as chief spokesman for the cause of leaded gasoline.

According to Leslie’s biography, Kettering’s stump speech on the topic involved warning his audience that “an innovation crucial to the economy and military must not be halted by public hysteria, especially since the health hazards were as yet unsubstantiated. Health risks were simply an inevitable part of progress. … Unless Americans were unwilling to forgo the car, which Kettering thought inconceivable, gasoline extenders like TEL would have to be tolerated.” There is no indication in his biography that Kettering wavered for one moment in his advocacy of lead, even after the casualties started mounting.

The Surgeon General convened a parley in May 1925 to hash out the question. On one side were the industrial hygiene people, an impressive group that included Yandell Henderson of Yale University, who stated that “leaded gasoline will be in nearly universal use and large numbers of cars will have been sold … before the public and the government awaken to the situation.” He argued the precautionary principle: that it was up to industry to prove that coating American roads and cities with lead powder was not the bad idea that it sounded like. On the other side were Kettering and his supporters, contending that, in the words of one Standard Oil executive, “Leaded gasoline is a gift of God … Because some animals die and some do not die in some experiments, shall we give this thing up? It must not be fears, but facts that we are guided by.”

Here we meet a significant co-conspirator – Robert Kehoe, director of the Kettering Laboratory of Applied Physiology in Cincinnati. Kehoe, who also served as Ethyl Gasoline Corporation’s Medical Director, gained a reputation as one of the nation’s greatest experts on occupational safety, especially regarding the chemical business. This was due in part to his in-depth investigation of the hideous experiments done by Nazi doctors on slave laborers during World War II, which is detailed in the eye-opening book, “The Secret History of the War on Cancer,” by Devra Davis.

Kehoe’s contribution to the TEL debate was a “scientific” examination of about 20 garage mechanics and drivers exposed to TEL. Kehoe found no evidence of lead contamination among them, and decided that better factory safety precautions within the blending plants were the answer to TEL’s dangers. It was a couple of weeks later that the Bayway works accident occurred. Nevertheless, Kehoe’s opinions about lead – that is, the views of an employee of Ethyl Gasoline – would be influential for decades to come, and still are in some quarters. He claimed to believe that lead occurred naturally in the human body, and at “low levels” was not toxic. He even asserted that lead was an essential micromineral – i.e., lead was good for you! It was a Big Lie strategy, which was not unpopular with the employers and corporate funders of the interest-conflicted Kehoe.

Kehoe’s solution to the controversy was marvelously simple, practical and inexpensive: hip boots, to prevent absorption through the skin. If blending plant workers just dressed and behaved properly, and stopped goofing off, there would be no more of that unseemly toppling over, followed by delirium or death, which occurred with such frequency in the blending factories. The only problem with this suggestion is that it is based on utterly false assumptions. Someone should have checked Kehoe’s exposure to “loony gas” when he declared that high lead levels were quite normal and no threat to an otherwise healthy organism. In fact, lead absorption is a byproduct of industrial products and processes. People living in the Himalayas have lead levels close to zero. But Kehoe didn’t use Nepalese villagers as his baseline – he used American factory workers, who were already saturated with workplace lead compounds.

Based on Kehoe’s work, and dubious, small-sampled animal research that was conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and actually funded by GM, a committee appointed by the Surgeon General found “no good grounds” for banning sale of leaded gasoline. The committee reported that all injuries linked to TEL had occurred during either the manufacturing or blending process, and that apparently no motorist or pedestrian had died as of yet. This was technically true, if not exactly reassuring.

The report did note that more research was necessary regarding long-term effects of chronic, low-level exposures, and called for the Public Health Service to do further studies. Interestingly, even the industry-supported American Chemical Society and the Society of Automotive Engineers developed cold feet at this moment and seconded the request for additional research. It was these scientists and engineers who had the most experience handling TEL, and the most immediate knowledge of its dangers. But no further studies were paid for or conducted by the government. All future research would be funded by the lead industry itself, through the agency of such safely co-opted figures as Robert Kehoe.

One possible reason why the Public Health Service failed to conduct any more studies is that the Service was under the jurisdiction of the Dept. of the Treasury. The Secretary of the Treasury at that time was Andrew Mellon, whose family controlled Gulf Oil. And Gulf Oil was one of the three major oil companies recently given lucrative distribution rights to leaded gasoline by Ethyl Corporation. One must give Kettering credit for one thing: He knew how the game was played.

The Long Cover-up

In May 1926, reports Jamie Lincoln Kitman in his authoritative Nation magazine article, “The Secret History of Lead,” one year after leaded gasoline had been withdrawn from sale, signs appeared in gas stations: “Ethyl is back.” The rest is history. Lead would remain in our gasoline for another 60 years. (It still has one legal use in the USA: as a fuel for prop planes.) Research on lead would continue to be underwritten by the lead industry, and the Bureau of Mines would have a clause in its contract with GM giving the company veto rights over its findings. Those who took on the pro-lead consensus (such as Herbert Needleman) would be savagely attacked by industry shills and captive government regulators. These intrepid souls would face loss of funding and employment by university administrators, who feared having their institutions seen as “unfriendly” to corporate interests and plutocratic foundations, and the research dollars they controlled.

From Kettering’s perspective, Kehoe had earned his money, making possible the future astronomical profits from TEL: three cents from every gallon of leaded gasoline would go directly into the corporate coffers. Within a decade, 80 percent of gasoline sold in the United States would be of the leaded variety, producing an annual gross profit of close to $300 million.

This consideration mattered a great deal to Kettering, who owned 450,000 shares of General Motors common stock, producing annual dividends worth approximately $700,000, in addition to his six-figure annual salary – all astonishing figures in the 1920s. “I was taught that a scientist is a man who works at his subject for the sake of the subject alone, and that a man who works on a scientific project with the idea of selling it has no right to be associated with science,” he said in 1927. “I have since learned that a bank account in the black is the popular applause of a scientific accomplishment.”

Money like this can make a fellow overlook somebody else’s bad luck. Here’s what Kettering had to say about the death of the two workers in the Dayton blending plant, practically in his own backyard: “We could not get this across to the boys. We put watchmen at the plant, and they used to snap the stuff [that is, pure tetra-ethyl lead] at each other, and throw it at each other, and they were saying they were sissies. They did not realize what they were working with.” Kettering admits here that he understood “what they were working with.” But this information about TEL’s profound toxicity was proprietary, and never shared with “the boys” or the larger public.

It is the immense profits derived from a proven carcinogen that fund Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and other Kettering-related philanthropies. And, as detailed in Davis’ history of cancer research, relatively few of those foundation-supported studies look to the environmental causes of cancer – that is, the preventive side of the equation, which would produce much more bang for the buck. Researchers learn early on not to nip the corporate hand that feeds them. Instead, the tendency is to blame the pollutees instead of the polluters, focusing on genetics as well as smoking and other individual misbehaviors, and doing endless and riskless “basic research.”

The eventual phase-out of leaded gasoline happened not primarily because TEL harms people, but because it damages the expensive platinum in catalytic converters, which were installed in cars in the 1970s in response to tougher EPA air quality standards. And Kehoe’s views about lead were finally discredited around the same time, when Prof. Clair Patterson of the California Institute of Technology showed that industrial civilization had raised lead levels within human bones by a factor of at least 100, and within the atmosphere by a factor of 1,000. Ethyl Corp. allegedly offered to endow a research chair at Cal Tech if they fired Patterson, but the damage was done.

Twenty years after the phase-out of leaded gasoline, our blood-lead levels have declined significantly. But bone-lead levels are harder to measure, and it is clear that the consequences of 60 years of massive contamination will be with us for generations. Considering the virulence of the poison, the duration of its effect, the greedy indifference of its makers and the elaborateness of the concealment effort – I contend that Charles Kettering’s development, marketing and promotion of tetra-ethyl lead is nothing less than the worst environmental crime in history. Kettering’s positive reputation 50 years after his death confirms that the conspiracy of silence he initiated regarding lead is still to some extent in force.

Sidebar: Fueling the Fuhrer

Another episode in the dark history of Ethyl Gasoline Corporation should be mentioned, although Kettering plays a less direct role. The story of Ethyl Gasoline, GM, I.G. Farben and Nazi Germany merits its own trial. But here’s a short version, to be taken into account when assessing the historical legacy of Charles Franklin Kettering.

As mentioned earlier, Kettering knew that tetraethyl lead had military as well as civilian applications, allowing combat aircraft to fly faster, higher and farther. For this reason, the militaristic Nazi and Italian fascist regimes sought the formula – and American corporations were quick to cooperate. A consortium of GM, Ethyl Gasoline Corporation and Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon) supplied the German chemical cartel I. G. Farben, which was closely tied to the Nazi Party and the German state, with the secret of producing TEL for aviation fuel, as well as other crucial patents. In 1934, Ethyl Gasoline Corporation actually joined forces with I. G. Farben in creating a new firm, Ethyl Gemeinschaft. Ethyl had similar arrangements in place with the Italian firm Montecatini.

It is literally true, as attested to in captured German documents, that this assistance by American companies, done in defiance of the U.S. War Department, made the Nazis’ fearsome war machine possible. I. G. Farben officials noted that “we received from [the Americans], above and beyond the agreement, many very valuable contributions for the synthesis and improvement of motor fuels and lubricating oils, which just now during the war are most useful to us; and we also received other advantages from them.” It is noteworthy that Ethyl Gasoline gave I. G. Farben and the Nazis the formula for the TEL process not due to any contractual requirement, but essentially as a favor to cement the relationship. The corporations were more than limited business partners; they were allies in a quest for global commercial dominance.

Harry Truman, heading a 1942 Senate committee on war profiteering, said of the Standard-Ethyl-GM-Farben arrangement: “This is treason.” However, for reasons of “morale” and fear of alienating important advertisers, the findings of this and other, similar commissions were not widely publicized by the press. They have since become part of America’s underground history. As for Kettering, while he does not appear to have been directly involved in the negotiations with Farben, he was on the board of directors of both GM and Ethyl Corp. during the period of collusion, and must bear some measure of responsibility. (The words “Hitler,” “I. G. Farben” or “Germany” do not appear in the index to Leslie’s biography of Kettering; this chapter in the life of GM and Ethyl Gasoline has been excised from the official story.)

Let us also briefly consider Kettering’s philanthropic efforts during his lifetime. In the 1930s, his incorporated foundations were investigated by Congress as suspected tax dodges. And while his dollar contributions to higher education may have been liberal, his attitude toward academic tolerance was anything but. Kettering funded a long-term project to study chlorophyll at Antioch College, close to his Ohio roots. Antioch was a haven for left-leaning faculty, a fact that the reactionary, New Deal-hating Kettering could not abide: “I don’t think Antioch has any future unless you lay down what you stand for and quit trying to be all things to all people,” he wrote to the college president. “Michigan has made it absolutely impossible for a known Communist to enter the University of Michigan. Until you people quit playing around with your pink teas, I don’t want anything more to do with you.” Eventually, Kettering’s threat to withdraw support from Antioch helped drive its president to resign.

We see here that Kettering was not above using philanthropy as a bludgeon to advance his own interests and silence competing views. This power to expedite certain directions of inquiry and retard others is the dark side of eleemosynary foundations, and explains much about the state of cancer research and academic timidity in general.

Summing Up

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: You have heard about Charles Franklin Kettering and his connection to the leaded world we live in today. I leave the judgment to you. There’s a limit, obviously, to the punitive possibilities for a man who died a half-century ago, and who went out in style: laid in state at the Engineers’ Club in Dayton, visited by thousands of mourners and carried to his final rest accompanied by a fleet of 40 GM automobiles. Never has it been more truly said: Ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.

Yet, Kettering’s biographer dubs the final chapter of his book, “The Last Hero.” Kettering still jauntily wears his purchased halo, and I submit it deserves knocking off.

Of course, no fortunes are squeaky clean, but many educated people know that Alfred Nobel’s dynamite contributed to the horrors of the Great War; that Ford was a vicious anti-Semite and an inspiration for Hitler; that Carnegie brutally crushed the union at Homestead, Pennsylvania; that Rockefeller had his coal miners and their families machine-gunned at Ludlow, Colorado. However, very few know of Charles Kettering and his role in filling our bodies and landscape with aerosolized lead. Kettering is not fundamentally different from other donor-capitalists – except that the catastrophe he engineered was an order of magnitude worse, and his role better hidden.

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew that lead was toxic. Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade, knew that lead was toxic. It took considerable money and effort to make the American public forget this simple fact, and to create the myth of an acceptable dosage. The question isn’t whether Kettering knew what he had wrought; it is whether he cared more about human beings than about engine compression ratios. I believe the answer is no, and I have presented here some evidence to that effect.

Charles Kettering has gone to the great Engineers’ Club in the sky, beyond our ability to punish – but not to scrutinize and judge. He embodied a system that secures profits and endangers people, and then through the magic of public relations transforms atrocities into accomplishments, and ogres into heroes. His inflated reputation today is a product of a foggy, upside-down, manufactured consciousness, which turns ordinary folks against their own most basic rights and interests, and prevents firm opposition and resistance from crystallizing. Kettering’s development of TEL and his denial of its consequences is more than a real-life horror story; it is a paradigm of how the system operates. And that is why his story – and our judgment – still matter.

HUGH IGLARSH is a Chicago-based writer, editor, speaker and movie buff (and is also a member of the Nelson Algren Committee, which will be celebrating the great mid-century novelist’s birthday this March 26; He can be reached at

This essay originated as a presentation at the College of Complexes in Chicago.


Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer, editor, critic and satirist. He can be reached at