features an article from the Winter 2002-03 issue of Notre Dame
A still from the movie
Rockne All American, showing
Pat O’Brien (standing) playing Knute as a
young chemistry student. His professor was Father
Nieuwland, played by German actor Albert
Basserman (center). To the left is Donald Crisp who played the
mythical university president Father John Callahan.
Father Nieuwland and the 'Dew of
By Joel A. Vilensky
Many people know Father
Julius Nieuwland, CSC, as the chemist and botanist for whom Nieuwland
Science Hall is named. His greatest claim to fame was helping perfect
synthetic rubber in the 1930s.
Few people know that
the priest inadvertently discovered a deadly chemical weapon that he later
believed would help make wars more humane.
the toxic substance that later became known as Lewisite while working on his
Ph.D. at Catholic University in the early 1900s. He was fascinated by
acetylene, a gas composed of carbon and hydrogen that he later used in his
synthesis of synthetic rubber. His entire doctoral thesis, completed in
1904, was devoted to the reactions of acetylene with other compounds.
Buried within that
thesis was a paragraph that described the reaction between acetylene and
arsenic trichloride. The resulting dark material possessed a nauseating and
penetrating odor and was so poisonous that exposure to it put Nieuwland in
the hospital for a few days.
There is no evidence
that Nieuwland ever conducted further work on the material. But others did.
After the Germans
introduced poison chlorine gas into the stalemated World War I, the United
States, aware of its likely entry into the war, began its own chemical
weapons research program. Much of the work occurred at universities,
including Catholic University, where Nieuwland's former thesis adviser told
the head of one of the chemical weapons units, Winford Lewis, about the
material Nieuwland had happened upon.
Lewis' initial attempts
to refine Nieuwland's material led to violent explosions, but aided by James
Conant -- later to become president of Harvard University -- Lewis
eventually succeeded in producing an oily, faintly yellow liquid that caused
painful blistering when applied to the skin and severely damaged the eyes
and respiratory systems. Because of its arsenic content, a small quantity
inhaled or dropped on the skin could readily cause death.
Lewisite had a distinct
advantage over the then-prevalent chemical agent mustard "gas" -- which like
Lewisite was actually a liquid -- in that it caused pain immediately.
Mustard gas can take hours to produce effects. The blistering effects of
both Lewisite and mustard gas meant they could produce enemy casualties even
if soldiers wore gas masks.
Lewis believed that a
disabling Lewisite cloud-weapon could be produced either from an associated
explosion within an artillery shell or sprayed from an airplane. In fact,
Lewisite was described after the war as the "dew of death."
Production of Lewisite
began too late for it to be used in World War I. In November 1918, 150 tons
of it was ready for transport from Ohio to Europe for a planned spring
offensive that the allies believed would win the war. But when Germany
surprisingly sued for peace, the material was quickly transported by
military train to the East Coast and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
Production facilities were rapidly dismantled.
Father Nieuwland knew
about the deadly, if unintended, product of his doctoral research. But in
newspaper interviews he said he considered Lewisite to be a humane weapon.
"Today the primary aim
in war is not to kill but to incapacitate," the priest said. "If a man goes
to the hospital suffering from gas, he is as useless as if he were dead --
and to care for him several other persons must be kept out of the battle
lines. The chances are that ultimately the victim will recover."
Interestingly, in 1936
Nieuwland died of a heart attack while visiting the Catholic University lab
where he'd first synthesized the material.
Although its discoverer had died,
Lewisite lived on. Between world wars, the U.S. government continued to
experiment with manufacturing techniques while other countries began to
produce and stockpile the agent. Japan used Lewisite against the Chinese
during the early part of World War II. The U.S. manufactured
approximately 20,000 tons of the compound during the war but never used it.
The surplus was again dumped into the sea during "Operation Geranium" (presumably
named as such because Lewisite smells like geraniums).
After World War II
various countries including the Soviet Union continued to manufacture and
stockpile Lewisite, alone and in combination with other toxins. Iraq is
believed to have used Lewisite in its 1980s war with Iran. Today the
material is considered a potential terrorist weapon.
development had an upside.
Between the end of
World War I and the beginning of World War II, British and American military
scientists labored to develop antidotes to prevalent chemical warfare
agents. And in 1941 a group of biochemists at Oxford University succeeded in
developing a substance that came to be known as British Anti-Lewisite (BAL).
This rotten-egg-smelling drug proved amazingly effective in countering the
effects of Lewisite on the skin and eyes and in bodily systems via an
intramuscular injection that resulted in the excretion of the toxic arsenic
in urine. Every American infantryman during World War II was provided a tube
of BAL ointment.
Later BAL was
determined to be very effective in treating lead, gold, mercury and
non-Lewisite causes of arsenic poisoning. And in 1951 BAL was found to
foster remarkable recovery in patients suffering from Wilson's disease, a
neurological condition caused by the toxic accumulation of copper in the
brain and liver. The condition greatly impairs a person's ability to move.
The treatment was considered a miracle cure at the time. And despite the
discovery of many new drugs since 1941, BAL continues to be the drug of
choice for cases of arsenic poisoning and is stocked by the pharmacy of
every major hospital.
* * *
Joel Vilensky is a
professor of anatomy and cell biology at Indiana University School of
Medicine (Fort Wayne). He is currently researching the history of Lewisite
for a possible book.
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