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