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Dew of Death

The Story of Lewisite, America's World War I Weapon of Mass Destruction

Joel A. Vilensky. With the assistance of Pandy R. Sinish. Foreword by Richard Butler

Publication Year: 2005

"Dr. Vilensky raises important concerns regarding the threats posed by lewisite and other weapons of mass destruction. As he describes, non-proliferation programs are a vital component in the War on Terror." -- Richard G. Lugar, United States Senator

"Joel Vilensky's book is a detailed and immensely useful account of the development and history of one of the major chemical weapons.... We will always know how to make lewisite, the 'Dew of Death,' but that does not mean that we should, or be compelled to accept such weapons in our lives." -- from the Foreword by Richard Butler, former head of UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq

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 country's achievements in the lethal arts." The name of this substance was lewisite and this is its story -- the 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 lewisite 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.

Published by: Indiana University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

A little more than a century ago, international law was made seeking to prevent the use of “asphyxiating gases” in warfare. Less than twenty years later those weapons—chemical weapons—were used during the First World War. That use, first by the Germans but later by the Allies, broke international law. More dramatically, it appalled people throughout the world. The ...

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pp. xv-xviii

Archivists, librarians, and historians deserve their own resort in heaven. It never ceased to amaze me that I could call or e-mail a librarian in the next state or across the world with a question and 98 percent of the time receive an answer—often with the following question: “Where can I fax you a copy of the relevant documents?” I thus begin by thanking the librarians and ...

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pp. xix-27

My grandfather served in the United States Army during World War I and after being discharged became a pushcart peddler on the Lower East Side of New York City. While serving in France he saw the victims of German mustard gas attacks, and these images remained vividly etched in his memory as he described to me the pain and blindness experienced by some of ...

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1. 1878: Two Stars Are Born

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pp. 1-12

In 1878 two men of science who would become unpredictably linked to the development of what some consider the world’s first weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were born eighty-five hundred miles apart—Julius Aloysius Nieuwland in Belgium and Winford Lee Lewis in California. Nieuwland is by far the better known of the two, though not specifically ...

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2. The Poisonous Yellow Cloud and the American Response

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pp. 13-18

By early 1915, less than one year after World War I began, it had become a stalemated, defensive war. Both sides realized that high-explosive artillery shells were ineffective at dislodging men from defensive trenches. And blankets of machine-gun ¤re prevented successful offensive actions without associated devastating losses—Germany alone had suffered over 2.5 ...

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3. The Hunt for a New King

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pp. 19-28

Lewis’s first military assignment was at the AUES, where he was ordered to study the corrosive action of gases on artillery shells so that more effective gas shells could be designed and built. However, he found the working conditions there so hazardous that he considered them intolerable. In an act illustrating that the scientists’ military commissions were more a convenient ...

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4. The American University Experimental Station

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pp. 29-36

Captain James Conant received the baton for lewisite’s development from Lewis. Although Conant did not participate in the discovery of lewisite, he eventually had as much to do with its becoming a weapon as Nieuwland and Lewis. Conant was born to Jennett and James Scott Conant on March 26, 1893, in Boston. ...

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5. Willoughby: The Chemical Warfare Service's Ace in the Hole

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pp. 37-55

Basic research by the CWS had convincingly demonstrated the potential of lewisite as a weapon of war by July 1918, necessitating the transfer of the lewisite project from its Research to its Development Division. The Development Division’s responsibility was to transform the small-scale processes for the production of gases devised by the Research Division into ...

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6. The Inter-War Years

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pp. 56-72

Once the “Great War” ended, the feeling in America was that the country had been forced to use inhumane weapons to help win the war. Nevertheless, American science had risen to the occasion by developing new poison gases, especially lewisite. This perspective was fostered by widespread publicity about lewisite beginning in 1919, when articles appeared in large metropolitan ...

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7. Military Biology and BAL

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pp. 73-85

Lewisite’s military value lies in its immediate (acute) effects. Exposure causes instantaneous excruciating pain when it enters the eyes, a stinging pain when it contacts the skin, and, when it is inhaled, sneezing, coughing, pain, and tightness in the chest, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. How does lewisite’s composition of carbon, hydrogen, ...

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8. World War II: The Gas War That Never Happened

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pp. 86-107

During the World War II years the War Department was charged with the role of producing lewisite; but a civilian agency, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), was formed in June 1940 to develop and improve military weapons, including poison gases. This agency was responsible for the great improvements in radar made by American engineers ...

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9. Lewisite Production, Use, and Sea Dumping after World War II

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pp. 108-117

When World War II began, both sides regarded lewisite as a powerful potential weapon. When the war ended without poison gas having played a major role, most countries regarded it as antiquated. Nevertheless, the antipathy between the East and West would not let it die. ...

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10. Lewisite Stockpiles and Terrestrial Residues

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pp. 118-142

How much lewisite has been produced since 1903? Unfortunately, relatively accurate information is available only for a few countries. The United States produced 20,150 tons. The Soviet Union produced at least 22,700 tons and probably much more, with one source reporting that over 47,000 tons was dumped at one burial site alone. Japan produced approximately ...

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11. Human and Environmental Toxicology

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pp. 143-153

Many people live in close proximity to lewisite deposits in the United States, Russia, and China. Are these individuals at increased risk for contracting life-threatening illnesses? Similarly, do the great quantities of lewisite that have been dumped in bodies of water around the world constitute a hazard for animal (especially marine) and/or human life? ...

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12. Lewisite, Terrorism, and the Future

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pp. 154-160

On March 19, 2002, Andrew H. Card, Jr., President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, issued a “memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies” titled “Action to Safeguard Information Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction and Other Sensitive Documents Related to Homeland Security.” This memo came in response to the September 11, 2001, ...

Appendix 1. Lewisite's Chemical and Physical Properties

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pp. 161-162

Appendix 2. Lewisite Production

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pp. 163-164

Appendix 3. Lewisite Degradation

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pp. 165-166


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pp. 167-187


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pp. 188-209


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pp. 210-213

E-ISBN-13: 9780253111524
E-ISBN-10: 0253111528
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253346124

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 28 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2005