Book Review: “The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched The War On Cancer
“The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched The War On Cancer” starts as a war story but quickly becomes a book about government secrets and the desire of a small group of scientists to develop something good from a mistake. The well-researched story by Jennet Conant begins in 1943 with Germany’s bombing of Allied ships. It caused so much damage that it was compared later to Pearl Harbor. While it was difficult to hide the damage to ships, the author describes the denial of what was happening to the soldiers and others. However, they denied that mustard gas had a longer-lasting effect. With 530 tons of mustard gas landing, it caused more than 1,000 deaths. The side drama is about where the mustard gas came from.
We follow the work of an American soldier who happened to be a doctor and chemical weapons specialist who tries to understand the nature of the devastating industries but is caught up in government secrecy. Lt Col. Stuart Alexander saw soldiers with chemical burns who did not respond to typical treatments. They complained about intense heat, tore off their hospital gowns, and demanded water. They exhibited burns and blisters. Their eyes and throat were inflamed. But their hair and eyebrows showed no effect. Many died with symptoms of pneumonia.
While the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited the use of chemical weapons, nothing banned their possession, and both the Germans and Allied forces had been stockpiling them. It took Alexander and his team a long time to sort it out while Allied leaders remained mum.
But along the way, Alexander wondered whether the mustard gas, which suppressed white blood cells, might not also slow the rate of division of cancer cells.
His final report was so controversial that it was classified by the Government. But Col. Cornelius “Dusty” Rhoads, a physician and research scientist at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Center, was able to read Alexander’s classified report on the casualties and realized the deadly chemical held great promise for cancer treatment.
Despite the challenges, the book documents Rhoads’ work on transforming the deadly poison to what we now know as chemotherapy.
I enjoyed this book. The beginning and end were particularly interesting…but the middle got bogged down in unnecessary detail.
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After more than 30 years of leading WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and serving on the NPR Board of Directors, Dave is now using the knowledge he gained in helping professionals become more effective leaders through executive coaching, leading workshops, and providing consulting services. He also teaches classes in journalism and ethics for Milwaukee’s Marquette University and courses in strategic planning and professional communications for Alverno College in Milwaukee. He blogs on management related issues at www.DaveEdwardsMedia.com