Today, a story about cancer and a WW-II mustard
gas attack. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
On December 2nd, 1943,
German bombers attacked Allied tankers and
munitions ships in Bari Harbor off the southeast
coast of Italy. They sank sixteen ships, partially
destroyed four more, and set off at least two major
explosions. The fires burned while hundreds of
oil-soaked men were pulled out of the water.
At first, many of the survivors seemed to be all
right, though a few mentioned the odd smell of
garlic. Soon they began showing symptoms --
stinging eyes, skin lesions, a variety of internal
problems. Four survivors died later the first day,
nine the next. By the end of a month 83 men, out of
the 617 who'd made it to the hospital, had died.
Something bad was going on.
One of the ships, it seems, had held 100 tons of
mustard gas. Later, the Army claimed it'd been
there as a deterrent -- a deterrent which had
inexplicably been made top secret. We were lucky
that most of the mustard gas burned off in the
fires. The small part of it that'd been absorbed
into floating oil was what did all the damage. And
so this Bay of Bari incident produced the only
mustard gas casualties in WW-II -- Allies killed
by Allied gas.
When military surgeons autopsied 53 of the dead,
they began to see just how mustard gas acts on the
body. The chemical agent has the imposing name,
methyl-bis(beta-chloroethyl)amine hydrochloride. It
was called nitrogen mustard for short. The
autopsies showed that one of its actions was to
attack white cells and lymph tissue.
Some of that action had been noted just after WW-I
-- where a different form of mustard gas had been
widely used as a weapon of war. (Some people called
the stuff yperite after the Battle of Ypres where
it'd done terrible damage.) A 1919 medical paper
showed that mustard gas attacked leukocytes, but
the paper didn't yet focus on any healing
potential. However, by WW-II, even before the Bari
Harbor bombing, doctors had tried treating
Hodgkin's disease and other cancers of the lymph
glands with nitrogen mustard. They'd had some
Now, in Italy, doctors had been handed a huge set
of data from a most unfortunate group of human
subjects. After the war, nitrogen mustard, and
other similar chemicals, became the chemotheraputic
agents of choice for cancers of the lymph glands --
like Hodgkin's disease.
Still, I cannot draw a swords-to-plowshares moral
from this tale. This sword still hasn't been
melted. Armies still build chemical and biological
weapons behind talk of secret deterrents. The sword
that killed those seamen in 1943 was one we thought
had been melted after WW-I. Today we're pretty sure
that Bari Harbor did not give us the last
scientific information we'll gain in such a way.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Krumbhaar, E. B., Krumbhaar, H. D., Blood and Bone
Marrow in Yellow Cross Gas (Mustard Gas) Poisoning.
Journal of Medical Research, Vol. 40,
1919, pp. 497-506.
Goodman, L. S., Wintrobe, M. M., Dameshek, W.,
Goodman, M. J., Gilman, A., and McLennan, M. T.,
Nitrogen Mustard Therapy. Journal of the
American Medical Association, September 21,
1946, pp. 126-132.
Alexander, S. F., Medical Report of the Bari Harbor
Mustard Casualties. The Military
Surgeon, Vol. 101, No. 1, July 1947, pp. 2-
Karnofsky, D. A., Summary of Results Obtained with
Nitrogen Mustard in the Treatment of Neoplast
Disease. Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences, Vol. 68, Article 2, April 1958,
I am grateful to Drs. Cathryn Howarth, Donald
Pinkel, and Sarah Fishman-Boyd for providing source
and counsel for this episode.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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