No. 1190:
Mustard Gas

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 success.

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 work.

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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- 17.

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, pp. 899-914.

I am grateful to Drs. Cathryn Howarth, Donald Pinkel, and Sarah Fishman-Boyd for providing source and counsel for this episode.