MIGHTY HISTORY

How World War I chemical weapons led to a cancer treatment

The grisliest images in the history of warfare are often related to chemical weapons. Images of soldiers and civilians alike blinded and/or covered in blisters highlight the barbarity of chemical weapon attacks and nowhere was this more apparent than during World War I. But even the most terrible wounds of the Great War had a silver lining: doctors were able to find the first effective treatment for an equally horrible disease.

Beware: some of the images of mustard gas can be disturbing.


No joke.

The history of cancer treatment was as slow a progression as the disease often is. Cancer is a disease older than humanity itself, as even dinosaurs suffered from it. From the earliest days of recorded medical history, doctors have come up with a variety of bizarre treatments for it. Ground coral, lead, and even the lungs of foxes were used as treatment for the disease. Only in the 1800s did surgeons start recommending the removal of cancer tissue if possible.

Even then, the surgeries were often harsh, brutal, and without anesthetics. Then came World War I and the many, many new and innovative ways to kill and be killed on the battlefields.

Back then, no one knew it was part one of two.

Mustard gas is a blister agent that can cause blindness as well as burning and blistering skin and internal organs. Mustard blisters in the throat can seal the airway, making the victim unable to breathe. The agent can also cause pneumonia-like symptoms in the lungs, causing a painful death by slow drowning. The worst part for battlefield medicine was that the effects of mustard gas could often not be fully developed for hours, filling up first aid tents and treatment wards.

Even if it didn't kill its victims quickly, they could feel the effects of the mustard gas attack for the rest of their lives, as the gas scars their physical body as well as their mind. And remember that World War I troops only had gas masks; there was no full body chem warfare suit during World War I.

Nurses treating World War I troops in the field.

After the war, mustard gas was studied extensively so that militaries could better utilize it on the battlefields and protect their troops against it. In the process of doing that, doctors noticed the bodies of men killed by the gas had lower white blood cell counts. This created enough interest for doctors to take a deeper look. By World War II, researchers were looking into the marrow of the deceased doughboys, where they made an important discovery: the mustard altered cell development in the bone marrow.

Cancer researchers used this information for their own devices. They isolated nitrogen mustard from the deadly gas mix and used the new substance on cancerous lymph notes and found that it would actually shrink cancers.

Doctors isolating nitrogen mustard.

The discovery led to a whole new generation of targeted cancer treatments that were much less barbaric and seemingly random than the centuries of treatments that came before. These chemicals targeted cells that divided at a faster rate than other cells, and eventually chemotherapy.

"Normal fast-reproducing cells usually resume production after chemotherapy is finished, but cancer cells, which have weaker DNA, tend not to." said Dr. Toni Storm-Dickerson, a breast surgical oncologist. "Chemotherapy has really changed the system of how we fight disease."