Mustard gas was, and is, one of the most terrifying weapons of war. It made people break out in blisters, and killed them slowly over weeks. It also inspired one of the first effective forms of cancer therapy. Here’s how.
Mustard gas lingers for days, making soldier’s skin break out in blisters and burning their eyes, noses, and lungs. When exposed to a lethal amount of the gas, a person could still take weeks to die. During the two world wars, scientists noted that the gas attacked nearly every part of the body. When doctors examined the bodies of soldiers killed or exposed to mustard gas, they saw that the attack included the immune system. Otherwise healthy men surrendered to disease.
This full destructiveness of the gas was really brought home for the Allied forces in 1943, when the SS John Harvey, an American ship carrying both mustard gas and military personnel, was bombed. The containers of mustard gas were breached, condemning many of the men who survived the initial sinking of the ship to death as they tried to swim through clouds of gas. Doctors examining the bodies afterward noted that the gas seemed to target the men’s white blood cells.
Horrific as they were, the gas attacks gave cancer researchers an idea. Leukemia and lymphoma are both cancers that develop in white blood cells. At the time there was no real treatment for those diseases. But any agent that could kill off healthy cells might kill off cancerous ones as well.
Mustard gas itself was out of the question, but the doctors came up with an alternate chemical called nitrogen mustard, and started looking for test cases. They found a man now known to us only as J. D. He was a lymphoma patient. The cancer had grown so vigorously that he could barely move due to swollen, painful lymph nodes. The researchers injected him nitrogen mustard, which, due to war security measures, they called “substance x,” and waited to see what would happen.
Although the injections he received didn’t save J. D., the treatment visibly helped the man. His pain decreased, his lymph nodes shrank, and he regained some of his mobility before he died. Doctors had found a new method of treating leukemia and lymphoma. Not only that, they found a way to treat cancer in general. Doctors could use chemicals to target cancer cells within the body, and each chemical could target a different type of cancer. Today we know it under the generalized name of chemotherapy. One of the most terrible weapons ever known led, through research and innovation, to a medical treatment that has saved countless lives.
Image: Public Domain, Canada