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The SS John Harvey, Saviour of Millions

November 19, 2010
A Liberty Ship

One of the 2,751 Liberty Ships built during WWII. One of these, the SS John Harvey, sunk and caused a terrible disaster, but it was one which led to a major medical breakthrough. Public Domain image from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Medicine is tricky work because the human body is so complex that it’s resistant to traditional science. Ever since René Descartes systems are broken down into their individual components, studied, and then when those components are understood the capacities of the larger group are understood as well. But biological systems often interact subtly, and in non-obvious ways.

This means that for every medical discovery that was made systematically there’s one that was heavily dependent on luck. The most famous example is penicillin, which was discovered after a chance observation by Alexander Fleming. Far less well-known is the story of the SS John Harvey and its effect on cancer research.

The John Harvey was an American Liberty Ship, assigned to a cargo run during the invasion of Italy in World War II. On her final voyage she was carrying a secret load of chemical weapons. All the combatants in WWII swore off chemical weapons (even Hitler: he’d been gassed and temporarily blinded as a military runner in the last month of World War I, and was extremely leery of that kind of weapon), but all hedged their bets. Franklin Roosevelt had chemical weapons shipped to the Mediterranean theatre beginning in August of 1943, just in case they were needed, and so in November of that year the John Harvey found itself in the port of Bari, Italy with a hold containing 60,000 kilograms of mustard gas in shells.

As its mission was secret, its captain couldn’t ask port authorities for priority; as Bari was one of the major ports supplying the Allies during the invasion of the Italian mainland, the ship was stuck in line for some time waiting for its cargo to be offloaded. It never happened, as on December 2nd Bari was struck by a major German air raid (so big that it shut down the port for more than two months; sixteen ships were sunk and it was dubbed “Little Pearl Harbor” at the time). The John Harvey was not hit, but it was showered with flaming debris, caught fire and blew up. Its cargo was unleashed on its crew and the defenseless town.

Every member of the Harvey‘s complement who knew what was in the hold was killed, so rescuers dealing with the casualties had no idea what they were up against. Mustard gas (which is actually an oily liquid which vaporizes very easily) needs to be countered before contact with a very specific treatment or, preferably, the entire area needs to be washed down with bleach or a mixture of substances named DS2. Not realizing that they needed to do this, many people succumbed to the attack while trying to rescue the first victims. For example, the HMS Bicester fished 30 casualties out of the water but, being damaged itself, was towed to nearby Taranto for repairs. By the time it got there many of its crew were suffering from chemical burns and blindness.

By the time mustard gas causes symptoms, it’s too late to do anything about it, but even at that point the medical personnel couldn’t figure out what was going on—partly due to the secrecy covering the cargo and partly because few doctors had seen mustard gas in action since 1918.  When someone was pulled from the water he was often covered in oily mustard gas, only to be dismissed because the substance was assumed to be diesel or gasoline dumped into the bay from ships split open by the air raid. Victims of a dunking were often suffering from exposure too, and so were wrapped in blankets that trapped the oil next to their skin.

Mustard gas does have a garlicky smell, though, and both the smell and the developing burns over the next few hours (and days, as still no-one knew to clean up the lingering chemicals) led medics to suspect some sort of chemical. An expert on chemical warfare, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to figure out what was going wrong. Lt.-Col. Alexander ran every test he could think of and eventually pinned down mustard gas as the culprit; he also used the technique pioneered by John Snow of mapping the location of casualties to pinpoint the cause and determined that the John Harvey was the centre.

War-time secrecy clamped down on the accident reports, but too many witnesses had seen what was going on and the US Army eventually admitted a few months later that the John Harvey had been carrying mustard gas. Nevertheless, the incident got lost in the tumult of 1944 and documents pertaining to it weren’t declassified until 1959.

In all there were 628 known casualties, including 86 deaths, but there were probably many more. As well as the oily residue on the waters of the port, a cloud of vaporized mustard gas had drifted across the town; civilian Barieses had scattered into the country after the raid and would have had to deal with the slow-burning chemical on their own, far away from where anyone could take official notice.

In the midst of the disaster, though, Lt.-Col. Alexander made an interesting discovery because he had had to do so many tests to narrow the field of suspects down: mustard gas kills white blood cells. Among their many other properties white blood cells divide quickly, which got the Lieutenant-Colonel to thinking about cancer cells, which are also noted for their quick growth. As part of his report, he suggested that someone might want to look into mustard gas, or hopefully something related that was a little less fearsome, as an anti-cancer drug.

As it happened, in 1942 Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman of Yale University had received a commission from the US Army to study the underlying chemistry of mustard gas’ effect on animal cells. They’d noticed the white blood cell-killing effect as well, but this too hadn’t got out to the medical world at large due to military secrecy. They’d idly considered the medical implications of their discovery, but then along came Alexander’s report to light a fire under them. They tested mechlorethamine, a derivative of mustard gas, on animals and then humans and found that it was effective as a treatment for lymphoma, including Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The latter was once a common killer of children, with a mortality rate of 100%; mustard gas-derivatives now make it very curable.

Mustard gas kills rapidly dividing cells by preventing DNA molecules from uncoiling, a necessary step for cell division. In 1943 DNA hadn’t even been discovered so the chemical’s effect was a mystery, but once James D. Watson and Francis Crick correctly interpreted Photo 51 in 1953 it was just a matter of time before the underlying chemistry was understood and other substances that worked on cancer cells the same way could be developed. Mechlorethamine was just the first many alkylating antineoplastic agents, a major class of chemotherapy drugs. If you know someone who’s survived a bout of cancer, or if you’ve you’ve survived it yourself, that victory can quite possibly be traced back to the only known release of chemical weapons in the European Theatre of WWII, and one of the worst disasters to strike southern Italy in the 20th century.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Lawrence permalink
    February 25, 2012 12:25 PM

    Wow, it’s rare that I learn anything new about WWII, but this article linked together a lot of fascinating material for me. Thanks for connecting the dots like this!

  2. Peter Darragh permalink
    April 10, 2014 5:28 PM

    Mustard was used to successfully treat my leukemia. My faith healer is a priest named Fr John Harvey. God works in mysterious ways.

  3. January 22, 2017 7:54 PM

    My father Lt. Col. Victor E. Clark Jr. was at Bari when all of this happened. He was a Captain in the First Combat Camera Group of the Army Air Corp. He told me that the explosions from the bombing and munition ships exploding for days ruined his hearing forever. He was staying outside of the town up in the hills above the port. He never mentioned the mustard gas. I honestly don’t know if he ever knew this part of the story. He passed away in 2001.

    • Paul Drye permalink*
      January 23, 2017 8:32 AM

      Great story, Joe! Thanks for sharing it. I would imagine a lot of the folks on the ground had a poor idea of what was going on — the usual military tendency to quietening things probably kicked in. If nothing else, it was unclear that it was mustard gas for at least a while. Everyone had probably moved on to the focusing on the next task by the time its presence could have become common knowledge.

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