The Great Secret
On the night of December 2, 1943, the Luftwaffe bombed a critical Allied port in Bari, Italy, sinking seventeen ships and killing over a thousand servicemen and hundreds of civilians. Caught in the surprise air raid was the John Harvey,
an American Liberty ship carrying a top-secret cargo of 2,000 mustard bombs to be used in retaliation if the Germans resorted to gas warfare.
After young sailors began suddenly dying with mysterious symptoms, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Alexander, a doctor and chemical weapons expert, was dispatched to investigate. He quickly diagnosed mustard gas exposure, which Churchill denied. Undaunted, Alexander defied British officials and persevered with his investigation. His final report on the Bari casualties was immediately classified, but not before his breakthrough observations about the toxic effects of mustard on white blood cells caught the attention of Colonel Cornelius P. Rhoads – a pioneering physician and research scientist as brilliant as he was arrogant and self-destructive – who recognized that the poison was both a killer and a cure, and ushered in a new era of cancer research.
Deeply researched and beautifully written, The Great Secret is the remarkable story of how horrific tragedy gave birth to medical triumph.
In a history that reads like a novel, Conant connects the 1943 bombing by the Nazis of an American ship containing banned mustard gas to the development of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment. * Editors' Choice, NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW * [A] compelling narrative. . . . fascinating. * Wall Street Journal * Engrossing. . . . Convey[s] a fast-paced medical detective story that demonstrates how careful scientific observation can yield unexpected benefits and serves as a reminder of the difficult choices made by governments to balance public health and secrecy in matters of security. * Science * Conant delights in the devilish details, the hidden, overlooked, and deeply personal stories that constitute our collective historical record. In her deft and experienced hands, readers will discover great delight as well. * Air Mail * With a keen understanding of medical science, cancer, and the history of World War II, as well as an amazing range of sources, Conant dramatically illuminates a dark moment in history that eventually led to the medical breakthrough of chemotherapy. * National Book Review (US) * [A] fast-paced history-cum-detective story * Bloomberg News * the gripping story of a chemical weapons catastrophe, its cover-up, and how one army doctor's discovery led to the development of chemotherapy * Daily Times * the book succeeds as a history of chemotherapy's origins * Nature * Jennet Conant unravels the remarkable story of a World War Two chemical weapons disaster which inspired one of the twentieth century's greatest breakthroughs in medicine with verve and precision. The Great Secret reads like a wartime adventure and political thriller combined. -- Wendy Moore, author of ENDELL STREET With a scintillating detective-tale plot rendered with an accomplished novelist's flair, Jennet Conant peels back the layers of deception employed by Allied authorities-including Winston Churchill-to conceal the fact that many of those who died at the Bari disaster in December 1943 perished from unprecedented exposure to mustard gas and immersion in ship fuel oil. This fast-paced narrative alone would make The Great Secret a landmark work, but Conant surpasses this with the even more astonishing chronicle of how insights into the Bari deaths ultimately galvanized the creation of the whole field of cancer chemotherapy. This is a heartbreaking and inspiring tale of tragedy leading to triumph. -- Richard B. Frank, author of TOWER OF SKULLS: A History of the Asia-Pacific War, July 1937-May 1942 A ripping good yarn, jam-packed with marvelous prose, wonderful historical characters, and superb research on a little known but critical chapter in the history of medicine and the Second World War. I could not put this book down until I reached the final page. -- Howard Markel, MD, PhD, George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine Author and journalist Jennet Conant has uncovered a humdinger of a tale, one that is equal parts war story, conspiracy thriller and medical mystery. More than anything, The Great Secret shows how the dogged efforts of a handful of scientists were able to turn a wartime tragedy and coverup into one of society's greatest gifts. This is a rare jewel of a story that readers will love and fellow historians will covet. -- James M. Scott, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of TARGET TOKYO and RAMPAGE Remarkable...the story of a genuinely extraordinary man [told] uncommonly well. * Washington Post on TUXEDO PARK * A brilliant account of the all but vanished reputation of an amateur physicist who became a friend and peer of the greatest scientists of his time. -- Kurt Vonnegut on TUXEDO PARK
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