The great secret The classified World War II disaster that launched the war on cancer

Jennet Conant

Book - 2020

"On the night of December 2, 1943, the Luftwaffe bombed a critical Allied port in Bari, Italy, sinking seventeen ships and killing over a thousand servicemen and hundreds of civilians. Caught in the surprise air raid was the John Harvey, an American Liberty ship carrying a top-secret cargo of 2,000 mustard bombs to be used in retaliation if the Germans resorted to gas warfare. After young sailors began suddenly dying with mysterious symptoms, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Alexander, a doctor and chemical weapons expert, was dispatched to investigate. He quickly diagnosed mustard gas exposure, which both Churchill and Eisenhower denied. But Alexander's breakthrough observations about the toxic effects of mustard on white blood cells, well as the heroic perseverance of Colonel Cornelius P. Rhoads-a researcher and doctor as brilliant as he was arrogant and self-destructive- were instrumental in ushering in a new era of cancer research led by the Sloan Kettering Institute."--

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New York, NY : W.W. Norton & Company, Inc [2020]
Main Author
Jennet Conant (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xviii, 380 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Prologue: "Little Pearl Harbor"
  • Chapter 1. "A Regiment of Wizards"
  • Chapter 2. "The Die Is Cast"
  • Chapter 3. "Angels in Long Underwear"
  • Chapter 4. "Journey into the Nightmare"
  • Chapter 5. "A Special Affinity"
  • Chapter 6. "Recommendation to Secrecy"
  • Chapter 7. "Magnum Opus"
  • Chapter 8. "Forgotten Front"
  • Chapter 9. "A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery"
  • Chapter 10. "Frontal Attack"
  • Chapter 11. Trials and Tribulations
  • Chapter 12. "The Sword and the Ploughshare"
  • Epilogue: Belated Justice
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Archives and Libraries
  • Select Bibliography
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Conant (Man of the Hour) reveals the surprising links between chemotherapy and chemical weapons in this well-researched and engrossing account. The American Liberty ship John Harvey was carrying a secret cargo of 2,000 mustard bombs when it was sunk in a 1943 Luftwaffe attack on Bari, Italy. Assigned to examine a mysterious illness afflicting the surviving sailors, Lieut. Col. Stewart Alexander saw through a "concerted Allied effort to cover up the presence of poison gas in the harbor" and diagnosed mustard gas poisoning. He also connected the sailors' symptoms to a research project he had previously performed on the toxic effects of mustard on white blood cells. Though censored at the time, Alexander's report was picked up by Col. Cornelius P. Rhoads, who would later head the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. Rhoads drew on Alexander's study to produce new and highly experimental cancer trials using nitrogen mustards. Though lay readers may find some descriptions of medical breakthroughs overly technical, Conant documents the many twists and turns of this little-known story with verve and precision. WWII aficionados and medical history fans will be fascinated by this illuminating chronicle. (Sept.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Conant has written another interesting story from World War II in the vein of some of her previous books, such as A Covert Affair or The Irregulars. Here, she recounts the bombing of multiple Allied warships in Bari, Italy, on December 2, 1943. Dr. Stewart Alexander, a lieutenant colonel and chemical weapons specialist, was sent to investigate the casualties for the United States. Secrecy and classified reports delayed the findings of his investigations, but eventually he discovered soldiers dying of mysterious symptoms, and his work was used to develop mustard gas-based chemotherapy at the new Sloan Kettering Institute in 1946. This is a well-researched and thoughtful medical history of the events at Bari through the lens of the doctor who saved lives by recognizing the signs of mustard gas poisoning, despite denials by military leaders. Conant effectively brings to life the people involved, with small details and anecdotes. While there are other books about the incident at Bari and the cover up, this book focuses on Alexander and his medical investigation. VERDICT A fast-paced read for fans of narrative nonfiction.--Margaret Henderson, Ramona, CA

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A revealing history of a 1943 German bombing of Allied shipping that came with unexpected consequences. Three months after the invasion of Italy, the southern harbor of Bari was busy and almost undefended when the Luftwaffe attacked, sinking 17 ships and producing damage and casualties comparable to Pearl Harbor. Bestselling author and historian Conant begins with a vivid description of the December 1943 raid, an event that proved to be a terrible embarrassment to the Allies, who made a partially successful effort to suppress news of the attack. They were better able to hide what happened over the next days and weeks. Victims appeared burned and blistered, yet their hair and eyebrows were unburned. Their eyes and throat were inflamed, and they often died with what seemed like pneumonia. Ultimately, about 600 were affected. Some doctors suspected that they were seeing symptoms of mustard gas exposure. Conant's hero in this fascinating and often gruesome story is Lt. Col. Stewart Francis Alexander, the Allied physician in charge of the Chemical Warfare Service. Arriving in Bari at the request of the local doctors, he confirmed their diagnosis and, despite vigorous denials from military officials, determined the source: an American ship carrying a cargo of mustard gas bombs. The Allied high command accepted his report but classified it until long after the war. This suppression did not include results from Alexander's meticulous research, which included autopsies, blood tests, and tissue samples. He reported that the gas killed victims' rapidly dividing blood and lymphatic cells. Since cancer cells also divide rapidly, here was a chemical that would destroy them. Alexander returned to private practice after the war, but his findings galvanized the few medical researchers looking for drugs to fight cancer. Smoothly switching gears, Conant devotes the final third of her book to the early efforts, which were dogged by controversy and disappointment but began achieving permanent cures by the 1960s. An impressive dual history of a military disaster and a scientific breakthrough. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.