History Lesson on Chemotherapy

Here you thought you were dropping by the blog to check in on my health status and you get handed a history lesson.  I think it is only appropriate, with the school year kicking off tomorrow, that we get a little education.  I really enjoy history so when I received this brief article from a good friend, Professor Matt Lund, I was thrilled.  This is a brief excerpt from a book titled Cures Out of Chaos, by M.L. Podolsky.  It explains the serendipitous discovery of chemotherapy.

“An Ill Wind”

At 7:30 in the evening of 3 December 1943, German bombers converged on the port of Bari in the heel of Italy.  Their target was the harbour, which was full of ships unloading supplies for the Allied armies, fighting their way up Italy.   The air-raid warnings had failed to sound and few people had taken cover.  One bomb struck the USS Liberty, which was loaded with high explosives and 100 tons of mustard gas.  Although neither side deployed  chemical weapons during the war, both came close and neither trusted the other to abstain from their use.  At all events, the Liberty exploded and a cloud of mustard gas engulfed the harbour area.  The gas alarm sounded, but it was too late for many soldiers and civilians.  Stationed in Bari as a medical officer with the US Army was Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, who had already made a name for himself in medical research before his country entered the war.   He was now called upon to treat the victims of mustard-gas poisoning.

Rhoads was struck by the effect of the gas on the blood cells:  immediately after exposure the white-cell count rose, but over the next days first the lymphocytes(on which the body’s immune response in large measure depends) and then the other types of white blood cell fell practically to zero.  Soon immature cells began to appear in the blood, indicating that the body was reacting to the insult that it had suffered.  Mildly affected patients recovered within days or weeks; those who had suffered severe exposure died or were sometimes saved by massive transfusions.  But, Rhoads observed with interest, infections were rare even in seriously affected patients and there was no evidence of any other tissue damage.  Was the toxicity of the mustard gas specific, then, for white blood cells?  And, if so, could it perhaps be useful for treating leukamias-conditions characterized by production of excessive numbers of white blood cells?  Rhoads’s inspiration marked the start of chemotherapy in cancer research and treatment.  Within months an oncologist in Chicago had successfully used nitrogen mustards-mustard gases and related compounds-to treat patients with leukaemia and Hodgkin’s disease.

My paternal grandfather survived World War 2 even after being shot down by the Germans.  He bailed out of his plane and parachuted into France, where the French (he told me) treated him like he was a hero.  He survived the war and then later survived his fight with colon cancer (this is where the doctors said I inherited it from).  Little did he know that the war that saw 56 million people lose their lives, could also provide a drug regiment that would save millions more.

Tomorrow CT Scan, Wed. time for more Chemo, Thurs-Sat. recovery time again.

Thanks for all your prayers, gifts, cards and thoughts,




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2 responses to “History Lesson on Chemotherapy

  1. Pat Groeper

    The 2 things I know for sure!!!!! The human sprit is incredible! and cancer sucks big time!!!
    However your human sprit is EXTRAORDINARY!!!
    Meaning it goes beyond the ordinary or the incredible!!
    As for cancer it is insidious!! How ever Chris, you have been able with your human sprit and your blog to inspire us with your humor and a great story! Everyday I can not wait to read your blog and hear how you are and laugh at your characterization of your journey with cancer!!! You inspire us every day! We love you we pray for you and we are all here for you! Thanks for the Chemo story for all of us who have been there done that we had no idea where it all started!! Remember we are all out here waiting to hear from you!!!

  2. Gina

    finaly got a chance to read this…well put- thanks for the lesson!

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