|Allied ships burn during the raid.
Attribution: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. File URL:
Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin
In 1928, Dr Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday to find mould growing on a Petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria. He noticed the mould seemed to prevent the bacteria around it from growing. He soon identified that the mould produced a self-defence chemical that could kill bacteria, a discovery that kickstarted a 20-year-long journey to develop the world’s first mass-produced drug to clear a bacterial infection – penicillin.
What happened in Dr Fleming’s dish can be labelled as Serendipity: discovering something good by accident.
This paper isn’t about penicillin but something that happened during World War II in Italy, just a few days before my 5th birthday.
What do Mustard Gas and Chemotherapy have in common?
Here’s a quick summary.
On 2nd December 1943, the Germans bombed a key Allied port in Bari, Italy, sinking 17 ships and killing more than 1,000 American and British servicemen and hundreds of civilians. Caught in the surprise World War II air raid was the John Harvey, an American Liberty ship carrying a secret cargo of 2,000 mustard bombs to be used in retaliation if Hitler resorted to gas warfare.
After the attack, which the press dubbed a “little Pearl Harbor,” US General Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill concealed the truth about the shipment of poison gas for fear Germany might use it as an excuse to launch an all-out chemical war. Because of the military secrecy, medical personnel weren’t alerted to the danger of contamination from the liquid mustard that spread insidiously over the harbour, mixing with the tons of fuel oil from the damaged ships.
By the next morning, the patients had developed red, inflamed skin and blisters on their bodies “the size of balloons.” Within 24 hours, the wards were full of men with eyes swollen shut. The doctors suspected some form of chemical irritant, but the patients did not present typical symptoms or respond to standard treatments.
After that, and without warning, patients in relatively good condition began dying. These sudden, mysterious deaths left the doctors baffled and at a loss as to how to proceed.
Rumours spread that the Germans had used an unknown poison gas. A young chemical warfare specialist, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, attached to Eisenhower’s staff, was sent immediately to the disaster scene.
Despite the denials of the British port authorities, Alexander quickly diagnosed mustard gas exposure.
Finally, on 11th December 1943, Alexander informed headquarters of his initial findings. Not only was the gas from the Allies’ own supply, but the victims labelled “Dermatitis NYD” had suffered prolonged exposure due to being immersed in a toxic solution of mustard and oil floating on the harbour’s surface.
Alexander’s Final Report of the Bari Mustard Casualties was immediately classified. But this was not before his startling discovery of the toxic effects on white blood cells caught the attention of his boss in the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS), Colonel Cornelius P. “Dusty” Rhoads. In civilian life, Rhoads served as head of New York’s Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases.
All deaths demonstrated mustard’s suppressive effect on cell division—suggesting it might be used to inhibit the fast-multiplying malignant white cells that can invade and destroy healthy tissue. Alexander had extracted invaluable data from the morgue full of case studies, pointing to a chemical that could possibly be used as a weapon in the fight against certain types of cancer.
Taking what they learned from Alexander’s landmark Bari report and a top-secret Yale University clinical trial that demonstrated nitrogen mustard (a more stable cousin of sulfur mustard) could shrink tumours, Rhoads was convinced the harmful substance—in tiny, carefully calibrated doses—could be used to heal. In 1945, he persuaded the General Motors tycoons Alfred P. Sloane and Charles F. Kettering to fund the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (SKI), to create a state-of-the-art laboratory staffed by wartime scientists, to synthesise new mustard derivatives and develop the first medicine for cancer – known today as chemotherapy.
In 1949, Mustargen (mechlorethamine) became the first experimental chemotherapeutic drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and was used successfully to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This triumph galvanised the search for other chemical agents that specifically targeted malignant cells but spared normal ones, leading the American Cancer Society to credit the Bari disaster with initiating “the age of cancer chemotherapy.”
And all this from the Germans bombing Allied ships that contained mustard gas.
A Disaster waiting to happen
In 1943, during the Italian Campaign, the port of Bari in southern Italy served as an important logistics hub for the Allies. Crucial ammunition, supplies, and provisions were unloaded from ships at the port, and then transported to Allied forces attempting to capture Rome and push German forces out of the Italian peninsula to the north.
The problem was that Bari had inadequate air defences; no RAF fighter squadrons were based there, and fighters within range were assigned to escort or offensive duties, not port defence. Ground defences were ineffective.
Little thought was given to the possibility of a German air raid on Bari, as it was believed that the Luftwaffe in Italy was stretched too thin to mount a major attack.
A bigger problem was the nature of the cargo in the hold of the SS John Harvey: liquid Mustard gas.
It started in the afternoon of 2nd December 1953. Luftwaffe pilot Oberleutnant Werner Hahn made a reconnaissance flight over Bari in a Messerschmitt Me 210. “Voll besetz,” “completely full”, was the message he sent to his base, saying that the port of Bari was full of ships. That is exactly what the Luftwaffe General Staff in Italy had been waiting to hear. It convinced Albert Kesselring to sanction the raid. The Germans thought that destroying the port might slow the advance of the British Eighth Army. The SS John Harvey, the Liberty Ship captained by Elwin P. Knowles, was anchored at pier 29.
As the lights were turned on at Bari harbour, the 105 Ju-88 bombers led by Oberleutnant Gustav Teuber swung west far out over the Adriatic Sea and headed straight for Bari. Teuber’s estimated arrival time over the harbour was 19:30. In the event, he was five minutes early. The attack, which lasted about an hour, started at 19:25 when two or three German aircraft circled the harbour at 10,000 ft. They dropped Düppel (foil strips) to confuse Allied radar. In the attack, 105 German Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Luftflotte 2, achieving complete surprise, bombed the harbour and its ships, and many of their bombs hit targets. Two ammunition ships were bombed. A petrol pipeline was cut and the fuel caught fire, spreading to many of the ships.
Twenty-eight merchant ships with more than 30,000 tonnes of cargo were sunk or destroyed. Twelve more ships were damaged. The port was closed for three weeks, taking until February 1944 before reopening.
The SS John Harvey, an American Liberty ship
The SS John Harvey was a US World War II Liberty ship. This ship is best known for carrying a secret cargo of mustard gas, and whose sinking by German aircraft in December 1943 caused the unintentional release of chemical weapons into the oily waters at the port of Bari in south Italy – a fatal combination for the sailors attempting to escape by swimming ashore.
In August 1943, US President Roosevelt approved the shipment of chemical munitions containing a mustard chemical agent to the Mediterranean theatre. It is not clear what strategy he was pursuing.
On 18th November 1943, the SS John Harvey, commanded by Captain Elwin F. Knowles, sailed from Oran, Algeria, to Italy, carrying 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60–70 lb of sulfur mustard. After stopping for an inspection by an officer of the 7th Chemical Ordnance Company at Augusta, Sicily, on 26th November 1943 the SS John Harvey sailed through the Strait of Otranto to arrive at Bari.
Bari was packed with ships waiting to be unloaded, and the John Harvey had to wait for several days. Captain Knowles wanted to tell the British port commander about his deadly cargo and request it be unloaded as soon as possible, but secrecy prevented him from doing so.
The consequences of the sinking of the SS John Harvey
On 2nd December 1943, German aircraft attacked Bari, killing over 1,000 people and sinking 28 ships. The toll included the SS John Harvey, which was destroyed in a huge explosion, causing liquid sulfur mustard to spill into the water, mixing with oil from the sunken ships, and a cloud of sulfur mustard vapour to blow over the city.
Nearly all crewmen of SS John Harvey perished in the sinking. Rescuers were prevented from knowing the real nature of the danger until a M47A1 bomb fragment was retrieved from the wreckage.
The Luftwaffe’s lucky strike, which released a poisonous cloud of sulfur mustard vapour over the Bari harbour—and liquid mustard chemical into the water—prompted an Allied cover-up of the chemical weapons disaster. But it also led to an army doctor’s serendipitous discovery of a new treatment for cancer.
A total of 628 military victims were hospitalised with mustard gas symptoms, and by the end of the month, 83 of them had died. The number of civilian casualties was thought to have been even greater but could not be accurately gauged since most had left the city to seek shelter with relatives.
Army doctor and chemical warfare expert Dr Stewart Francis Alexander (Medical Corps Lieutenant Colonel) discovered the mustard gas and gave the medics the correct treatment to be administered to the surviving victims. While examining tissues collected on autopsied victims, he found out that mustard gas destroys white blood cells and other kinds of rapid dividing cells. This discovery was further investigated by pharmacologists Louis S. Goodman and Alfred Gilman, who used a mustard gas-related agent, mustine, as the first chemotherapy treatment.
On 11th December 1943, Dr Alexander informed headquarters of his initial findings. Not only was the gas from the Allies’ own supply, but the victims labelled “Dermatitis NYD” had suffered prolonged exposure due to being immersed in a toxic solution of mustard and oil floating on the harbour’s surface. The response Alexander received was shocking. While Eisenhower accepted his diagnosis, Winston Churchill refused to acknowledge the presence of mustard gas in Bari. With the war in Europe entering a critical phase, the Allies agreed to impose a strict censorship policy on the chemical disaster: All mention of mustard gas was stricken from the official record, and Alexander’s diagnosis was deleted from the medical charts.
In an attempt to cover up the ‘in-theatre’ possession of chemical weapons by the Allies, the deaths were attributed to “burns due to enemy action”. Reports were purged or classified. However, there were too many witnesses to keep the secret, and in February 1944, the US Chiefs of Staff issued a statement admitting to the accident and emphasising that the US had no intention of using chemical weapons except in the case of retaliation. US records of the attack were declassified in 1959, and the British government admitted the poison gas release and the harm caused to the surviving victims.
Dr Alexander’s Final Report of the Bari Mustard Casualties was immediately classified, but not before his startling discovery of the toxic effects on white blood cells caught the attention of his boss in the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) Colonel Cornelius P. “Dusty” Rhoads. In civilian life, Rhoads served as head of New York’s Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases.
Of the more than 617 casualties who suffered from gas exposure at Bari, 83 died, all demonstrating mustard’s suppressive effect on cell division—suggesting it might be used to inhibit the fast-multiplying malignant white cells that can invade and destroy healthy tissue. Dr Alexander had extracted invaluable data from the morgue full of case studies, pointing to a chemical that could possibly be used as a weapon in the fight against certain types of cancer.
Based on Dr Alexander’s landmark Bari report, and a top-secret Yale University clinical trial that demonstrated that nitrogen mustard (a more stable cousin of sulfur mustard) could shrink tumours, Rhoads was convinced the harmful substance—in tiny, carefully calibrated doses—could be used to heal. In 1945, he persuaded the General Motors tycoons Alfred P. Sloane and Charles F. Kettering to fund the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (SKI), to create a state-of-the-art laboratory staffed by wartime scientists, to synthesise new mustard derivatives and develop the first medicine for cancer—known today as chemotherapy.
In 1949, Mustargen (mechlorethamine) became the first experimental chemotherapeutic drug approved by the FDA and was used successfully to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This triumph galvanised the search for other chemical agents that specifically targeted malignant cells but spared normal ones, leading the American Cancer Society to credit the Bari disaster with initiating “the age of cancer chemotherapy.”
17th December 1943 The Spokesman-Review account of Bari disaster
The Spokesman-Review reported the disaster as follows:
“Bari Disaster, Hard to Avoid: Low-level Attacks Difficult if No Alert Given:
Lack of adequate aerial defences, especially fighter planes, around the supply port of Bari, Italy, is now revealed to have cost the Allies 17 cargo ships and 1000 casualties two weeks ago today. Five of the ships were American.
“The anchored vessels were blown up like sitting ducks by a handful of German bombers, which made a devastating low-level attack on the harbour at dawn on 2nd December 1943. Approximately 1000 persons were killed or injured, including 37 American naval men…”
Details of the German attack were given in a 1967 article in the US Navy journal Proceedings and in a 1976 book by Glenn B. Infield, Disaster at Bari.
After the War
After the war, the United States disposed of unspecified amounts of phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride, and additional quantities of mustard off the coast near Bari.
Studies performed by the University of Bari as recently as 1997 have discovered cases of mustard exposure among fisherman trawling these waters.
Sources and Further Reading
- Posting by Brent Cooper, a Trial and Appellate Counsel for Cooper & Scully (1993–present) on Quora at: https://randomhistory.quora.com/Alexander-Fleming-accidentally-discovered-penicillin-What-other-accidental-discoveries-revolutionized-a-particular-fiel-1
- Book: Bari 1943: the second Pearl Harbor (Witness to war Book 14), by Francesco Mattesini, published by Luca Cristini Editore (Soldiershop); Wtw-014 En ed. edition (13th August 2020). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bari-1943-second-Harbor-Witness/dp/8893276194/
- Book: The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster that Launched the War on Cancer, by Jennet Conant, published by Grove Press UK (7th October 2021). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Secret-Classified-Disaster-Launched/dp/1611854547/
- Book: Nightmare in Bari: The World War II Liberty Ship Poison Gas Disaster and Coverup, by Gerald Reminick, published by Glencannon Press; 1st edition (1st October 2001). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nightmare-Bari-Liberty-Disaster-Coverup/dp/1889901210
- Book: Disaster at Bari, by Glenn B Infield, published by New English Library Ltd; New edition (1st July 1976). Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Disaster-at-Bari-Glenn-Infield/dp/0450026590
- YouTube Video: Nazi Raid On Bari (1944). British Pathe News, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AlOXFwa4X4
The story was inspired by a postingon Quora.com by Brent Cooper, a Trial and Appellate Counsel for Cooper & Scully (1993–present) at: https://randomhistory.quora.com/Alexander-Fleming-accidentally-discovered-penicillin-What-other-accidental-discoveries-revolutionized-a-particular-fiel-1 ↑
Source: Saunders, D.M., Capt. USN (September 1967). “The Bari Incident”, page 36. United States Naval Institute Proceedings. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute. ↑
Source: Orange, Vincent (1992) [1st pub. London: Methuen 1990]. Coningham: a biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, page 176. Washington: Center for Air Force History. ISBN 0-413-14580-8. ↑
Explanation: Liberty ships were a class of cargo ship built in the United States during World War II under the Emergency Shipbuilding Program. Though British in concept, the design was adopted by the United States for its simple, low-cost construction. Mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, the Liberty ship came to symbolize US wartime industrial output. Sources: Flippen, J. B. (April 2018). Speaker Jim Wright. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. p. 60. ISBN 9781477315149, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_ship#cite_note-Flip60-5 ↑