February 4, 1936 Radium Girls

“There is no possible excuse for such a delay”, Lippmann wrote. “The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth. This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.” Walter Lippmann, New York World

In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer began to feel soreness in her jaw. She was 23 at the time and too young to have her teeth falling out, yet that’s what was happening. Her doctor was able to identify the problem, but couldn’t explain it. Grace Fryer’s jawbones were so honeycombed with holes, they looked like moth eaten fabric.

s13On December 21, 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the 88th element of the Periodic Table. This new and radioactive element was Radium, one of the ‘alkaline earth metals’.

Curie’s work would make her the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize in 1906, and the only person of either sex to ever win two Nobels, in 1911.

We’ve seen some strange pop culture fads over the years, from goldfish swallowing to pole sitting, but none stranger than the radium craze of 1904.  The stuff was an industrial wonder, a medical cure-all.  Newspapers waxed rhapsodic about cities of the future, streets aglow in the light of radium lamps as smiling restaurant patrons sipped “liquid sunshine”.  Radium plays and dances featured performers, dressed in glow-in-the-dark costumes.  The smiling farmer of the future, tilled glowing fields.  Bartender, I’ll have a Radium Highball.

14wrh8n-Custom1Serious physicians had early success killing cancer cells, driving a quack medicine craze where charlatans sold radium creams, salts and suppositories claiming to to cure everything from impotence to acne to insanity, rickets, tooth decay, and warts.

Unseen at the time, one benefit of the craze was that demand for radium vastly outstripped actual production. Prices skyrocketed to $84,500 per gram by 1915, equivalent to $1.9 million today. Authorities warned consumers to be on the lookout for fake radium, while the business in bogus radium products, soared.

WWI broke out in 1914.  It didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of glow in the dark instruments. Any number of companies stepped up to fill the need, but none larger than US Radium and its glow-in-the-dark paint, “Undark”.

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Hundreds of women worked in US Radium’s Orange New Jersey factory, hand painting the stuff on watches, gun sights and other instruments. Radioactivity levels were so small as to be harmless to users of these objects, but not so to the people who made them.

The harmful effects of radiation were relatively well understood by 1917, though the information was withheld from factory workers. Camel hair brushes tended to splay out with use.  Supervisors encouraged the women to sharpen brushes using lips and tongues for a nice, sharp point. The stuff was odorless and tasteless, and some couldn’t resist the fun of painting nails and even teeth with the luminous paint. The only side effects of all that radium, they were told, would be rosy cheeks.

They were paid eight cents a dial.

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The active ingredient in Undark was a million times more active than Uranium, and company owners and scientists knew it. Company labs were equipped with lead screens, masks and tongs, while literally everything on the factory floor, glowed.

Frances Splettscher died in 1925 at age 21, suffering severe anemia and unbearable toothaches.  At one point a dentist pulled a tooth.  Part of her jaw, came with it.

Doctors began to suspect that Grace Fryer’s condition may be related to her previous employment in US Radium. By that time she was seriously ill, yet Columbia University “Specialist” Frederick Flinn and a “Colleague” pronounced her to be in “fine health”.

Only later were the two revealed to be company executives.

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Grace Fryer

These US Radium guys must have been genuine, mustache twirling, villains. In the early 1920s, company officials hired physiologist and Harvard Professor Cecil Drinker to report on working conditions. Drinker’s report detailed catastrophically dangerous working conditions, with virtually every factory employee suffering serious blood or bone conditions.

The report filed with the New Jersey Department of Labor omitted all of it, describing conditions in glowing terms (pun not intended), claiming that “every girl is in perfect condition”.

UndarkReports of illness among other women came flooding in. US Radium took to assassinating the character of these women, claiming that their symptoms resulted from syphilis.

Attorney Raymond Berry filed suit on Fryer’s behalf in 1927, the lawsuit joined by four other dial painters seeking $250,000 apiece, in damages.

The newspapers dubbed them “radium girls”. The health of all five plaintiffs was deteriorating rapidly, while one stratagem after another was used to delay proceedings. By the first courtroom appearance in January 1928, none could so much as raise her arm, to take the oath. Grace Fryer was altogether toothless by this time, unable to walk and requiring a back brace even to sit up.

One dial painter, Amelia “Mollie” Maggia, died on September 12, 1922.  She was twenty-six.  Mollie’s lower jaw was removed in the last months of her life, the cause of death ruled as syphilis.  Mollie’s dentist wasn’t buying it. Dr. Joseph Knef placed her jawbone on a piece of dental film.  The resulting image showed “absurd” levels of radiation.

Mollie Maggia was exhumed on October 15, 1927 in the presence of six-man teams of doctors and lawyers from both sides, two brothers-in-law and her father, Valerio.  Her bones spoke from beyond the grave, words she herself could no longer say.  To hell with the character assassins, doctors found zero evidence of syphilis.  “Each and every portion of tissue and bone tested”, they said. “gave evidence of radioactivity.”

The radium girls were far too sick to attend the next hearing in April, when the judge ordered a continuation to September, an accommodation to several company witnesses “summering” in Europe.

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Walter Lippmann of the New York World called the proceedings a “Damnable travesty of justice”. “There is no possible excuse for such a delay”, Lippmann wrote. “The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth. This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.

Delay was a deliberate and sleazy tactic, and it worked. Plaintiffs accepted a settlement of $10,000 apiece plus legal fees, and a $600 annual annuity.  The deal was mediated by Judge William Clarke, himself a US Radium stockholder. None of the plaintiffs lived long enough to cash more than one or two annuity checks.

Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky, the paint’s inventor, died of aplastic anemia in 1928, a victim of his own creation.  Marie Curie herself was dead by 1934, poisoned by radiation. With a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks remain too hot to handle, to this day.

Radium was synthesized for the first time two years later, on February 4, 1936.  One would hope that factory workers using the stuff, were no longer encouraged to sharpen their brushes, with their tongues.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 25, 1925 The Great Race of Mercy

“It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates of Kos identified an upper respiratory infection, characterized by the formation of a leathery white “pseudomembrane” on the tonsils, pharynx, and/or nasal cavities of its victims.  Early symptoms resemble a cold or flu in which fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing.  Late symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies.

German bacteriologist Friedrich August Johannes Loeffler first identified Corynebacterium diphtheriae in the 1880s, the causal agent of the disease Diphtheria.  Within ten years, researchers had developed an effective antitoxin.

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a leading cause of death among children and adults over 40.

Diphtheria is highly contagious and spread by direct physical contact and by breathing aerosolized secretions of its victims.  Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease. In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

download (7)Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became ill with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the pseudomembrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

There were 10,000 living in Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the lower 48, likely had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A plea for help went out by telegram and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum. Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be required. but, perhaps this would be enough to stave off epidemic. Until a larger shipment arrived, in February.

A 20-lb cylinder containing the antitoxin and wrapped in protective fur shipped as far as it could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none could be started in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way, by dog sled.

On January 27, a US Marshal pounded on the door of Willard J. “Wild Bill” Shannon, begging for his help with the relay to Nome.   It was after midnight and −50° Fahrenheit , when Shannon and his nine-dog team received the serum. The temperature had dropped to −62°F by the time the team reached Tolovana, 24 hours later. Shannon himself was hypothermic, with parts of his face turned black with frostbite.  Three of his dogs had died on the way, victims of frostbitten lungs.

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Leonhard Seppala and his team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F.  With Seppala’s 8-year old-daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, the stakes could not have been higher.

Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley”, Seppala gambled on a shortcut across the unstable ice of Norton Sound.  The howling gale threatened to break up the ice, stranding the team at sea.  Visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see his own “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled.  The 19-dog team struggled for traction on the glassy skin of the ocean water, returning to the coastline only hours before the ice broke up.

Much of the time, navigation in that black, frozen wilderness was entirely up to Seppala’s lead dog.  Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve-year-old “Togo”, who was trusted with the lead.

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Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 that night. A massive gust estimated at 80mph upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the darkness with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready to use,  by noon.

seppala520 mushers and 150 dogs or more had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks. Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough antitoxin for 30, the serum run had held the death toll to no higher than seven.

Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died while completing the run.  Several mushers were severely frostbitten.

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Gunnar Kaasen and Balto

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dog becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country, after Rin Tin Tin. There was a nine-month vaudeville tour, and Hollywood produced a 30-minute silent film, “Balto’s Race to Nome,” starring himself in the lead role.

A bronze likeness was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925, with Balto in attendance.  The statue stands there to this day, though Kaasen’s lead is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards).

Balto’s fame was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53-mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead little more than a “freight dog”.  The statue was particularly galling.  “It was almost more than I could bear” he said, “when the ‘newspaper dog’ Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements’”.

Togo lived another four years though the serum run rendered him lame, never again able to run. The real hero of the serum run spent the last years of his life in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away at the ripe old age of 16.

Wild Bill Shannon disappeared in 1937, while prospecting for gold.  His bones were discovered four years later, perhaps a victim of exposure, or perhaps yet another “close call”, with a grizzly bear.

Togo and Seppala
Leonhard Seppala and Togo

Leonhard Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled his lead dog on the serum run.   “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”

Today, the memory of the 1925 serum run lives on in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, held every March and run over much of the same terrain as the ‘Great Race of Mercy’.   Togo himself is stuffed and mounted,  standing watch at the Iditarod museum headquarters, in Wasilla, Alaska.

Afterward

Despite the decrepit condition of those three biplanes, pilots and mechanics thought they could have one ready to go, in three days.  The challenge was immense.  Ethylene Glycol wouldn’t be used as an automotive anti-freeze until the following year, and older methods such as Methyl Alcohol wrought havoc on internal engine components.

e16a10c46b80a325b8c6e8e4009c828c“The once tight fabric covering the wings and fuselage was weak from all the rough landings as well as the wind and rain. Dirt and oil caked the engine and prop. Wires for the rudders and elevators hung from the sides of the fuselage.” Even in such disrepair, the pilots and mechanics thought one of the planes could be ready to go Nome in just three days, a flight they thought would take no more than 6-hours”.

If unsuccessful, all would be lost.  Pilot, aircraft and serum.

The decision was a high stakes gamble, falling in the end to Alaska Governor Scott Bone, who decided on the twenty-team relay.  Good thing, too.  Multiple efforts to get one of those aircraft in shape for the second shipment, failed.

The Salisbury cousins Gay and Laney tell the tale in a harrowing account called The Cruelest Miles, if you’re interested in more reading.  I haven’t gotten to mine yet, but it sounds like a good read.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 12, 1967 Cryonic Suspension

Suffering from an incurable and metastatic kidney cancer, Dr. James Hiram Bedford became the first person in history to be cryonically preserved on January 12, 1967. Frozen at the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, −321° Fahrenheit, he remains in cryonic suspension, to this day.

The human brain is an awesome thing. Weighing in at about 3-pounds, the organ is comprised of something like 86 billion neurons, each comprised of a stoma or cell body, an axon to take information away from the cell, and anywhere between a handful and a hundred thousand dendrites bringing information in. Chemical signals transmit information over minute gaps between neurons called synapses, about 1/25,000th to 1/50,000th of the thickness of a sheet of paper.
There are roughly a quadrillion such synapses, meaning that any given thought could wend its way through more pathways than there are molecules in the known universe. This is roughly the case, whether you are Stephen J. Hawking, or Forrest Gump.
signaltransmissiondendritescellbodynucleussynapse
Figure Dendrites. Cell body. Nucleus. Axon hillock. Axon. Signal direction. Synapse. Myelin sheath. Synaptic terminals. Presynaptic cell. Postsynaptic cell.

For all of this, the brain cannot store either oxygen or glucose (blood sugar), meaning that there’s about 6 minutes after the heart stops, before the brain itself begins to die.
Legally, brain death occurs at “that time when a physician(s) has determined that the brain and the brain stem have irreversibly lost all neurological function”. Brain death defines the legal end of life in every state except New York and New Jersey, where the law requires that a person’s lungs and heart must also have stopped, before that person is declared legally dead.

“Information-theoretic death” is defined as death which is final and irreversible by any technology.  Clearly then, there is a gap, a small span of time, between the moment of legal death and a person’s permanent and irreversible passing.
So, what if it were possible to get down to the molecular level and repair damaged brain tissue. For that matter, when exactly does such damage become “irreversible”?
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The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the self-described “world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology” explains “Cryonics is an effort to save lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today’s medicine can be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health”.
The practice is highly controversial, and not to be confused with Cryogenics, the study of extremely low temperatures, approaching the still-theoretical cessation of all molecular activity. Absolute zero.
The Cryogenic Society of America, Inc. includes this statement on its home page:
“We wish to clarify that cryogenics, which deals with extremely low temperatures, has no connection with cryonics, the belief that a person’s body or body parts can be frozen at death, stored in a cryogenic vessel, and later brought back to life. We do NOT endorse this belief, and indeed find it untenable”.
cryonic capsules
The modern era of cryonics began in 1962, when Michigan College physics professor Robert Ettinger proposed that freezing people may be a way to reach out to some future medical technology.
The Life Extension Society, founded by Evan Cooper in 1964 to promote cryonic suspension, offered to preserve one person free of charge in 1965. Dr. James Hiram Bedford was suffering from untreatable kidney cancer at that time, which had metastasized to his lungs.
Bedford became the first person to be cryonically preserved on January 12, 1967, frozen at the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, −321° Fahrenheit, and sealed up in a double-walled, vacuum cylinder called a “dewar”, named after Sir James Dewar, the 19th century Scottish chemist and physicist best known for inventing the vacuum flask, and for research into the liquefaction of gases.
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Dr. James Hiram Bedford

Fifty-one years later, cryonics societies around the world celebrate January 12 as “Bedford Day”. Dr. Bedford has since received two new “suits”, and remains in cryonic suspension, to this day.

Advocates experienced a major breakthrough in the 1980s, when MIT engineer Eric Drexler began to publish on the subject of nanotechnology. Drexler’s work offered the hope that, theoretically, one day injured tissue may be repaired at the molecular level.
In 1988, television writer Dick Clair, best known for television sitcoms “It’s a Living”, “The Facts of Life”, and “Mama’s Family”, was dying of AIDS related complications. In his successful suit against the state of California, “Roe v. Mitchell” (Dick Clair was John Roe), Judge Aurelio Munoz “upheld the constitutional right to be cryonically suspended”, winning the “right” for everyone in California.
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Judge Aurelio Munoz

The decision failed to make clear who was going to pay for it.

As to cost, a Cryonics Institute (CI) video advertises a cryopreservation fee of $28,000, payable in monthly installments of $25.
Ted Williams went into cryonic preservation in 2002, despite the bitter controversy that split the Williams first-born daughter Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell, from her two half-siblings John-Henry and Claudia. The pair were adamant that the greatest hitter in baseball history wanted to be preserved to be brought back in the future, while Ferrell pointed out the will, which specified that Williams be cremated, his ashes scattered off the Florida coast.
The court battle produced a “family pact” written on a cocktail napkin, which was ruled authentic and allowed into evidence. So it is that Ted Williams’ head went into cryonic preservation in one container, his body in another.
ben_franklin-1-2-e1336601575917The younger Williams died of Leukemia two years later, despite a bone marrow donation from his sister. John-Henry joined his father, in 2004.
Walt Disney has long been rumored to be in frozen suspension, but the story isn’t true. After his death in 1966, Walt Disney was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
In April 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Jacques Dubourg. “I wish it were possible”, Franklin wrote, “to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But…in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection”.
Maybe so but, for the several hundred individuals who have plunked down $25,000 to upwards of $200,000 to follow Dr. Bedford into cryonic suspension, hope springs eternal.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

December 22, 1944 The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her. 

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the BulgeThe terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe, the one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

BastogneHistorian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

NursesAugusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne buildingAugusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, ChiwyAugusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Chiwy and KingAlbert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 2, 1943  A Savior of Millions

How modern chemotherapy drugs emerged form the trenches of WW1

Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the Hydra. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt, in AD178.

The French were first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces in the first month of the Great War, August 1914.

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Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised a new and fresh hell, unimaginable to the modern reader.

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as Lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

Japanese, Gas Artillery

The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle on the eastern front – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

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Russian soldier in a rubber gas mask, ww2

None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as that of Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.  Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937.

“I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

The Geneva Protocols on 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

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Air raid on Bari, December 2, 1943

For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM, when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

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Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Death comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in certain cancers and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of those were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode remained shrouded in secrecy.

Afterward:
At the time, the nature of the chemical disaster at Bari was unknown.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo was killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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Dr. Sidney Farber, regarded by many as the “Father of Modern Chemotherapy”

It was Dr. Alexander who figured out that mustard was the responsible agent, and from where it had come.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent first went after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells. Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma. 

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

Writers have labeled SS John Harvey a Savior of Millions, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely so.  The American Cancer Society estimates that there were 7,377,100 male cancer survivors in the United States as of January 1, 2016 and another 8,156,120, females.

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November 29, 1918 An Enemy like No Other

The worldwide Encephalitis Lethargica epidemic afflicted some five million people between 1915 and 1924. One-third of sufferers died in the acute phases of the disease, a higher mortality rate, than the Spanish flu of 1918-’19. Many of those who survived never returned to their pre-existing state of “aliveness”, and lived the rest of their lives, institutionalized.

The Great War was in its third year in 1917, with another year to go.  Before such conflicts acquired numbers, this was the most cataclysmic war in human history (or at least one of the top two), destroying the lives of some thirty-six million on all sides and leaving untold millions more, maimed for life.

In March of the following year, a new batch of trainees cycled through Fort Riley in Kansas, fresh recruits destined for the “War to End All Wars”.  On reporting for breakfast one morning, none could know that an enemy lurked among them, more lethal than the war itself.

Private Albert Gitchell was coming down with cold-like symptoms:  sore throat, fever and headache.  Never mind breakfast.  Pvt. Gitchell was headed for the base hospital.  By noon, over one-hundred had reported sick, with similar symptoms.

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Cytokine storm

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one. This flu would kick off a positive feedback loop between small proteins called cytokines, and white blood cells. This “cytokine storm” resulted in a death rate for 15 to 34-year-olds twenty times higher in 1918, than in previous years.

It was the young and healthy immune system of these victims, which was most likely to kill them.

On November 29, 1918, the armistice was a bare two weeks in the past, the treaty formally ending the war, seven months into an uncharted future.  Serbia, the place where it all started, annexed the former Ottoman territory of Montenegro.  Former combatants were beginning to come home, while politicians worked out the details.

History has a way of swallowing some events, whole.  Like they never even happened.  The Spanish flu would afflict some five hundred million worldwide, killing an estimated fifty to one hundred million souls.  Two to three times those killed by the war itself.  Yet, this story was overshadowed, by the end of WW1.

Small wonder that such an event would itself eclipse a pandemic far smaller but in some ways more terrifying, than such a universal calamity as the Spanish flu.  To this day, nobody knows where this enemy came from.  Or where it left to, when it went away.

In 1915, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Constantin von Economo described the signs and symptoms of a strange new condition which came to be called Von Economo’s Disease. The illness was labeled Encephalitis Lethargica, literally “Inflammation of the brain which makes you tired”.

E.L. is also referred to by the deceptively benign name of “Sleepy Sickness”.  Von Economo distinguished three phases of the illness. Symptoms of the somnolent-ophthalmoplegic include paralysis of the cranial nerves, leading to expressionless faces and involuntary eye movements, with overwhelming sleepiness leading to coma. Fully one-third of E.L. sufferers died during this phase, of respiratory failure. The hyperkinetic form manifested itself with restlessness and motor disturbances leading to facial contortion, anxious mental state and an inability to sleep, often leading to death by exhaustion.

The amyostatic-akinetic form frequently resulted in a chronic state resembling Parkinson’s disease, called Postencephalitic Parkinsonism.

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Substantia nigra, shown in red

Autopsies revealed  this third phase to result from localized neurodegeneration of the Substantia Nigra, the basal ganglia structure of the mid-brain which plays a role in reward and associative learning, as well as bodily movement. Unknown to the sufferer, this neurodegeneration takes place over an interval of a few days to thirty years, consigning the sufferer to a trance-like state in which the patient is rendered speechless and motionless, fully aware but, for all intents and purposes, a statue.

The 1973 non-fiction book Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, describes what that looks like:

“They would be conscious and aware – yet not fully awake; they would sit motionless and speechless all day in their chairs, totally lacking energy, impetus, initiative, motive, appetite, affect or desire; they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies”.

el_patientThe worldwide Encephalitis Lethargica epidemic afflicted some five million people between 1915 and 1924. One-third of sufferers died in the acute phase of the disease, a higher mortality rate than the Spanish flu of 1918-’19. Many of those who survived never returned to their pre-existing state of “aliveness”, and lived the rest of their lives institutionalized, as described above.

The causes of Encephalitis Lethargica are uncertain. Studies have explored the origin of the condition as an autoimmune response. Recent research reveals a possible association with Diplococcus, a gram-negative relative of the Strep bacterium.

_140297_patient_from_20s_300_(24-7-98)_grabIndividual cases continue to pop up, but have never assumed the pandemic proportions of 1915-’24. Further study is needed but, perversely, such study is only possible given more cases of the disease. For now, Encephalitis Lethargica must remain one of the great medical mysteries of the twentieth century.  An epidemiological conundrum, locked away in a nightmare closet of forgotten memory.

Let us hope that it stays there.

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September 13, 1987 Things that Glow

The abandoned machine was little more than a radiological time bomb.

220px-Teletherapy_Capsule2.svgOn September 13, 1987, Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira entered the Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), bent on theft. The private hospital was permanently closed at the time, and partly demolished. Alves and Pereira were looking for anything they might sell, for scrap.

What they found, was more than either man had bargained for.

At one time, the radiotherapy unit in the central Brazilian city of Goiânia had served untold numbers of oncology patients, using ionizing radiation to control cell growth and even kill off any number of cancers, following surgical removal of the tumor.

Now, the abandoned machine was little more than a radiological time bomb.

Four months earlier, the IGR had attempted to remove their equipment, in the midst of a legal dispute with then-owner of the property, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. A court order prevented the removal, as owners of the company wrote letters to the National Nuclear Energy Commission, warning that someone needed to take responsibility “for what would happen with the caesium bomb”.

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“A wheel type radiotherapy device which has a long collimator to focus the radiation into a narrow beam. The caesium chloride radioactive source is the blue rectangle, and gamma rays are represented by the beam emerging from the aperture.” H/T Wikipedia

The radioactive source within the “external beam radio therapy” unit is a “wheel type” canister, with shielding walls of lead and steel and designed to rotate the source material when in use, between storage and irradiation positions.

Alves and Pereira removed the capsule from the heart of the machine, the stainless steel canister containing just over 3-ounces of highly radioactive caesium chloride, an inorganic salt derived from the radioisotope, caesium-137.

The court had posted a security guard, but he or she must have been snoozing, at the time.  The two scavengers placed the canister in a wheel barrow, and brought it to Alves’ home to see what they had found.

The pair experienced the dizziness and diarrhea of radiation poisoning,  but attributed symptoms to something they ate.  Pereira developed burns on his fingers, the size and shape of the canister’s aperture.  Meanwhile, Alves continued to tinker with the thing, finally freeing the capsule from its protective rotating head.  Poking the capsule with a screwdriver, a dark blue light could be seen from within, the florescence of electromagnetic radiation.

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Radiation burns following exposure to left hand, H/T ResearchGate.net

Radiation burns would cost Pereira his fingers and Alves his right arm, but the two would survive the exposure.  The owner of the scrapyard they sold the thing to, wasn’t so lucky.

goiania_webFive days after the theft, Alves sold the items he had pilfered, to a nearby scrapyard. Noticing the blue glow from the punctured capsule, the scrapyard owner thought the object might be valuable or even supernatural, and took the thing inside. Several rice-sized grains of the glowing material were pried from inside the capsule, as Devair Ferreira (the owner of the scrapyard) invited friends and family to come and see the strange, glowing substance. Ferreira’s brother Ivo brought some of the stuff home to his six-year-old daughter, about the time when Devair’s 37-year-old wife Gabriela, became ill.

It was she who first noticed how many and how quickly, the people around her were getting sick. Too late for Ivo’s daughter Leide, who couldn’t resist rubbing the glowing blue powder on her skin, and showing it to her mother.  Anyone who ever raised a six-year-old daughter, knows what that must have looked like.

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International Nuclear Event Scale (INES)

By the time the presence of nuclear radiation was discovered on the 29th, the Goiânia nuclear disaster qualified as a Five on the International Scale of Nuclear Events, the INES.  Tons of topsoil had to be removed from a number of sites, and several houses, demolished.

Goiania-Accident-September-13-1987The incident was broadcast all over Brazil, and 130,000 people people flooded into area hospitals, afraid they had been exposed. One thousand individuals showed greater than background levels of radiation, 249 showed significant signs of contamination.

Four died.  The wife of the scrapyard owner Gabriela, who was first to figure it all out.  Two employees who had worked to remove the lead for its scrap value, Israel dos Santos aged 22 and Admilson de Souza, aged 18.  And that little girl, Leide, who was so happy to see her skin, glowing blue.

In the public civil suit that followed, the three doctors who owned the IGR, were ordered to pay 100,000 Brazilian Real, (equivalent to $24,000 US), for the derelict condition of the building.  The two thieves who stole the stuff in the first place, were never charged.

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