The Mustard Gas Tragedy That Created Chemotherapy

By Alan Boyle on Saturday, October 12, 2013
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“Always look on the bright side of life.” —Eric Idle, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

In A Nutshell

Chemotherapy is one of the most successful and widespread medical procedures developed during the 20th century. Its origins, however, are rather sinister. A US ship carrying chemical weapons was bombed in an Italian harbor in 1943, and survivors forced to swim through the resulting toxic mess ended up with severe and fatal burns. An expert found during autopsy that certain cell lines had been suppressed, and thought that this action could be used to treat tumors. This discovery led to the first chemotherapy agents and trials.

The Whole Bushel

In 1943 President Roosevelt had made a pledge that if Germany were to use chemical weapons he would retaliate in kind. With this in mind, a ship carrying 2,000 bombs was stationed in the Italian port of Bari. Each weapon carried 45 kilograms (100 lbs) of mustard gas. Bari was a crucial supply point for the Allied forces in the area and so a ready target for the Nazis. On December 2, 105 bombers struck, sinking 28 ships and causing 2,000 casualties. Among the destroyed vessels was the gas-carrying John Harvey.

One hundred tons of mustard gas poured into the sea while survivors of the raid were making their way to shore. To make things worse, presence of the weapons had been concealed by the Americans. When the injured were taken to the local hospital, many were left in their chemical-soaked clothing as it was believed they were covered in nothing more sinister than engine oil. A total of 628 people were injured by the mustard gas, and it killed 69 in the first two weeks after the raid. Ironically, these were the only deaths caused by Allied chemical weapons during the whole of World War II.

A chemical warfare expert, Lt. Col. Stewart Francis Alexander, was sent to investigate. He performed autopsies on a number of bodies and discovered two things of interest. The deceased had extremely low levels of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. They also had suppressed myeloid cell lines, the abnormal growth of which causes a type of leukemia. Lt. Col. Alexander wondered if there were possible medical applications of this effect.

A clinical trial was conducted on a patient with lymphoma, a condition in which the white blood cells divide too rapidly. When nitrogen mustard was administered, it caused a significant reduction in the patient’s tumors. While the treatment was successful to begin with, the cancer cells developed a resistance by the third occasion. Nevertheless, it proved the concept was valid and led to the development of chemotherapy as it’s used today.

Show Me The Proof

Mustard Disaster at Bari
From Weapon to Wonder Drug