Research Notes – The Great War (8) Chemical Weapons to Chemotherapy

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

The Great War introduced the concept of total war to the world, where the entire economies and civilian populations of the combatant nations would be mobilized in the effort for victory. This mindset of total war lowered the barriers to using any means necessary, no matter how gruesome, to achieve the desired outcome. Therefore, despite The Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases in 1899 and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare banning the use of chemical weapons, gases were deployed as early as 1914 in The Great War.

The French were the first to use gas in battle, deploying tear gas in grenades which were completely ineffective, the amounts of gas being so low as to be undetectable. The first large-scale use of lethal gas began in 1915, most notably on April 22 when the Germans fired artillery shells filled with chlorine gas into positions held by French Colonial troops in the region north of Ypres, Belgium. The German soldiers, wary of the gas themselves, failed to exploit this new deadly weapon before French and Canadian troops reformed the line broken by the scattering Colonials.

Chlorine gas continued to be used by the German Army throughout 1915, provoking the allies to respond by using it in kind, which quickly led to an escalation in the use of even more lethal substances. Phosgene gas was formulated by a group of French chemists and first used by France on the battlefield later in 1915. Phosgene was colorless and had an odor like moldy hay which made it difficult to detect. One drawback, if you can call it that, was that often the symptoms from phosgene poisoning weren’t manifested until 24 hours after contamination. Thusly, the troops on the field weren’t immediately incapacitated by the gas and were able to carry on fighting. It would only be the next day that these apparently fit troops would be sickened by their exposure. Phosgene was never as well known as the notorious ‘mustard gas’ but it was the cause of 85% of the 100,000 deaths attributed to chemical weapons during The Great War.

Mustard gas was introduced in 1917 by Germany prior to the Third Battle of Ypres. Mustard gas is the most well known of all the gases used in the war even though it wasn’t an effective immediate killing agent except in high doses. Rather, it may have taken up to six weeks for the victim to die. And it was a slow, horrible death. It blistered the skin, made the eyes sore, produced vomiting, caused internal and external bleeding and stripped the mucous membranes from the bronchial tubes, making breathing difficult and extremely painful. Delivered in artillery shells, the gas precipitated to the ground as an oily substance and settled in the soil, remaining active for days and weeks, even months if weather conditions were right. Because mustard gas was absorbed through the skin, gas masks, which had become standard issue equipment to all front line troops, were useless against an attack.

By the end of the war, all combatant armies had begun to use these deadly chemical weapons, constituting war crimes on all sides of the conflict.

Nevertheless, there is a rather amazing twist in this dark tale of war.

As The Second World War broke out, among the same group of belligerents as the first war, new fears about chemical attacks motivated urgent research into potential antidotes to these deadly agents. Doctors at Yale University Hospital began to study the medical records of soldiers who had been exposed to mustard gas during The Great War and they made an interesting connection that could be used to fight a different kind of battle.

Doctors Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman discovered that soldiers exposed to mustard gas had fewer white blood cells in their total blood count than normal. These immune cells, if mutated could develop into the cancers: leukemia and lymphoma. They proposed the idea that if mustard gas could destroy normal white blood cells, perhaps it could destroy the cancerous ones as well. An experimental drug was formulated from the components found in mustard gas and animal trials commenced with successful results. There was hope in the war against cancer.

The first human volunteer for this experimental treatment was desperate. His jaw was deformed by a massive tumor, the swollen, cancerous lymph nodes in his arm pits were so large he was unable to cross his arms across his chest. He was given the new drug developed from mustard gas and with each treatment, began to see improvement. Unfortunately for this patient, the treatment was too late for this advanced stage of cancer. Nevertheless, the results were hopeful and exciting and the age of chemotherapy had begun. And so it was that a deadly agent of war was transformed into a life saving agent in the war against cancer.

Header Image:  Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor). Otto Dix, 1924

38 thoughts on “Research Notes – The Great War (8) Chemical Weapons to Chemotherapy

    1. You have to think someone would have made the discovery without all the horror of gas warfare. 😬 Maybe a lot later but still… Nevertheless, I thought this was interesting. And for once I am incoporating my research on the gas attacks into the book.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t believe, in this day and age, that chemicals are still being used as a weapon. The images from Syria a week or so ago are heartbreaking. How could they do that? Then deny it? I’m generally a peaceful guy nowadays, but I sure hope somebody pays for what they’re doing to those poor people. Royally pisses me off. Humanity sucks ass. 😠

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know, it’s absolutely horrifying. Man’s inhumanity to man to the n-th degree. It can’t go on. No government can rule by terror and not pay the consequences. I have to believe that.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. For many years I was a qualified NBC instructor and took great delight in testing my unit’s effectiveness operating in NBC conditions. This included testing everyone’s respirators in a CS gas chamber! CS is great for alleviating sinus problems!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s a pity the 100,000 thousand had to suffer from the gas. In 1944 the British government strongly considered using their stockpile of mustard gas in retaliation for the bombing of London by Germany who used V-1 and V-2 rockets.Germany also considered arming the rockets with gas. They opted to use TNT because it was more destructive On a side note, a significant number of cancer patients refuse chemotherapy because after a short while because it makes them sicker than cancer does. As much as I find your research interesting I am dismayed that medical science is still using a treatment that is one hundred years old.I’m just glad I didn’t have chemo just radiation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree! On both accounts. I have read disturbing stories (at least in America) that chemo is the one drug that oncologists make a profit from! And so at times when just radiation would be enough, there is incentive to prescribe chemo drugs anyway! Big Pharma has reasons to keep people sick as long as possible. Frankly its criminal!


  3. Very interesting. My grandfather (dad’s dad) was gassed in 1915. He suffered all the remainder of his life coughing up his lungs bit by bit. He died when I was very young, but I still remember him well. A good man and a fine rugby player.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My great grandfather, too… survived the war but the effects of gas shortened his life considerably. He died in his 40’s. I wish I’d met him!


  4. I love your history pieces. I was learning about World War I from a different angle as well recently. I didn’t know that Mustard gas was such a slow painful death and that it often resulted in terrible cancer. At least it led to scientific study for chemotherapy, even though Chemo can kill as much as it saves people. I was certain after WWII, the use of these chemical gases were banned, maybe in the Treaty of Versailles and within Wilson’s 14 points as rules to international engagement in war with U.S. and within the beginnings of the UN.

    However, I have been reading recent articles that talk about Nerve gases used to kill civilians in the Middle East today, which is awful. Also, I was certain that Saddam Hussein used these gases in the 1980’s to kill and commit genocide against many of his own people.

    Also, I remember learning in high school and university, that the soldiers learned to use clothes they had urinated on, which essentially nullified a certain gas/chemical. Was this chlorine or mustard gas? I don’t remember, but I thought you’d know,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right! Before the first gas masks were issued, the soldiers used urine soaked handkerchiefs as a means of protection. And it was only semi-useful against the chlorine gas. Phosgene came next and then finally the mustard gas. Mustard gas was absorbed through the skin so gas masks were useless against it. And it was a slow killer, taking weeks sometimes to die.

      And yes, despite the international ban on using chemical weapons, they continue to be used in warfare globally. Nerve agents have been in the news because of the Assad regime’s use against the Syrian population. But you could argue that Agent Orange a defoliation chemical used in the Vietnam war was also a chemical weapon just going by another name. Man’s inhumanity to man …

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I love your comments, my fellow history buff!

      Liked by 1 person

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