Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Chapter Eighteen The Guano Wars; The Nitrogen Issue 1864-1866;Hafer

Topic: Chapter Eighteen: South Pacific: Topic 588

America got started badly with European powers. At first, the English King Henry VIII had trouble getting a male heir from numerous European princesses, cut off their heads, remarried, started his own branch of the Catholic Church, defied the Pope of Rome, and engaged in piracy with the Spanish Empire. People took their religion pretty seriously in those days, and a papist version of the same events held that he was looking to grab papist riches and felt the need to have a cover story. There seemed some truth in numerous versions of state affairs, so people believed what suited their inclinations. In any event, the sixteenth century was consumed with stories of piracy that suited their needs. In time, things settled down, but essentially a majority of Englishmen remained strongly anti-catholic amidst the smoking ruins. In time, they also hated Kings who wanted to tax them, and aristocrats who flourished in the confusion. Whalers plied their trade in the South Pacific, and came home rich, or at least ready to be rich.

It happens that the South Pacific region is pretty arid, and the North Pacific rim was soon depleted of fertilizers, held in check by Indian Wars, great buffalo migrations, and strange European diseases like measles. The demarcation line along the Allegheny mountains was followed by even more daunting barriers of the Rocky and Sierra mountains further west, and fleeing white men had an easy time driving the native tribes before them. We tend to think of settlers drawn to the West, but in fact, the settlers were mostly fleeing to the Pacific rim. The general Westward Ho! state of affairs tended to obscure the facts, but from Maine and Connecticut west there was glacial topsoil, and then the great plains were again easily depleted to semi-desert conditions. Americans had other things on their minds. but handsful of dried guano were a Godsend brought home by whalers. Dried bird excrement kept Peru and Chile busy for generations making war on each other. Other things like phosphates sustained Devil's Island on the Atlantic rim, thus is explained more of the history of South America than gold discovery could possibly explain. In a sense, the digging of the Panama Canal brought this to an end, but the steamboat expansion of the post-civil War started it. And back home. George Washington the first President was putting down the Whiskey Rebellion which threatened his retirement plans. It's pretty hard to say what America would have become without this quirk of geography, but it's easy to see how different America would be without the Guano phenomenon, to say nothing of the 1909 discoveries of Fritz Hafer the German, 1924 Nobel Prize-winning chemist, and his associate Bosch.

Nitrogen is the main component of the air we breathe, and the ammoniacal basis for both fertilizer which saved millions of lives, and mustard gas, which destroyed an equal number. So it's hard to know whether to criticize or praise him, but at least he isn't an American, who invisibly affected whatever America has become today.

Originally published: Monday, September 23, 2019; most-recently modified: Monday, September 23, 2019

 

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