In 1919, when the Great War was over, the New York Times reported on a new chemical weapon with "the fragrance of geranium blossoms," a poison gas that was "the climax of this countrys achievements in the lethal arts." The name of this substance was lewisite and this is its storythe story of an American weapon of mass destruction.
Discovered by accident by a graduate student and priest in a chemistry laboratory at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., lewisite was developed into a weapon by Winford Lewis, who became its namesake, working with a team led by James Conant, later president of Harvard and head of government oversight for the U.S.'s atomic bomb program, the Manhattan Project. After a powerful German counterattack in the spring of 1918, the government began frantic production of lewisite in hopes of delivering 3,000 tons of the stuff to be ready for use in Europe the following year. The end of war came just as the first shipment was being prepared. It was dumped into the sea, but not forgotten.
Joel A. Vilensky tells the intriguing story of the discovery and development of this weapon and its curious history. During World War II, the United States produced more than 20,000 tons of lewisite, testing it on soldiers and secretly dropping it from airplanes. In the end, the substance was abandoned as a weapon because it was too unstable under most combat conditions. But a weapon once discovered never disappears. It was used by Japan in Manchuria and by Iraq in its war with Iran. The Soviet Union was once a major manufacturer. Strangely enough, although it was developed for lethal purposes, lewisite led to an effective treatment for a rare neurological disease.
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