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.
Nieuwland discovered 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.
But Lewisite’s 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.