The Spanish Flu – An accident of history or a weapon of war? Part 1

Working hypothesis

What if the Spanish Flu (1918-1920) was created in a lab like so many other killing inventions during WW1?

But before I can properly answer this question, I need to tell you the story of a man, part angel part demon, which made me believe the Spanish Flu could have been made in a laboratory and then released into the general population. It is, like almost all things, part tragedy, part drama. It is the story of the triumph of will over matter and it is the tale of perseverance in the face of a cruel life.

Preamble: WW1 (1914-1918)

World War 1 was one of the most destructive wars in our recorded history.

It was in fact the most destructive conflict until World War 2. The Robert Schuman European Centre gives conservative figures of cca. 20 million fatalities, divided almost evenly between military and civilian casualties. Another 21 million people were injured, maimed, or destroyed as viable human beings in the process. And these were the lucky ones who did not asphyxiate during the massive gas attacks preceding a ‘push’ or offensive. A lot of WW1 veterans returned home mere shadows of their former selves, their lungs chemically burned, and their will to live sapped to the bone.

And yet nothing compares to the fate of the grands invalides de guerre – people disfigured by modern explosives, but kept alive by the miracles of early 20th century medicine.

And the horror does not stop here. 20 years later the world would see another set of young men destroyed by fuel burns who would showcase the ‘wonders’ of skin graft medicine. This is what made me come to the realisation that medicine has always been about prolonging the agony and not about saving life. But human beings like to delude themselves into thinking otherwise. Silly, we are a silly bunch.

During the war, combatants introduced, on a scale never seen before, a myriad of killing devices: quick-firing artillery, high explosives, machine guns, submarines, naval and land mines, air power, etc. At the same time, the military co-opted scientists to the war effort. That is how the Hungarian Gábor Szakáts invented the modern flamethrower used by the Imperial German Army in over 300 battles.

For some strange reason, I get the same feeling of maniacal fear when I look at Black Plague doctors from the 1600s and at Imperial German Army soldiers with their masks on (1916). They do look like harbingers of death, don’t they?

Professor Fritz Haber (1868-1934)

And that is also how Professor Fritz Haber, a brilliant German-Jewish chemist, came to invent the most potent poison gas of WW1, phosgene or yperite, after the town and Battle of Ypres, where it was first used on 22 April 1915. There, in under two hours, the gas killed 6,000 Entente soldiers, leaving a 6-mile gap in the line. The German Army was so much surprised by the effectiveness of their weapon that they failed to act quickly and exploit the tactical breach. By the time they brought in troops to pour into the gap, the Entente had reestablished the front-line.

Incidentally, Ypres also took Haber’s wife, who was a chemist as well in addition to being a vehement pacifist. After the gas attack at Ypres, she confronted Haber on humanitarian grounds, and then killed herself with his service handgun. Undaunted and duty-bound, Prof. Haber left for the Eastern Front the next day, leaving his 13-year old son by himself. Today, we would call him callous. 105 years ago, the man was doing his duty, serving his country, like most of his peers, on both sides of the conflict.

The portrait of a driven man. A Breslau Jew who aspired to greatness and who actually made a name for himself: “We only want one limit, the limit of our own ability.” A deeply moral person, he had clearly defined rules, which helped him navigate a tragic existence. He famously states “During peacetime, a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time, he belongs to his country.

When reports started to come in from the front that Allied soldiers were using handkerchiefs dipped in urine to counteract the effects of chlorine, Haber quickly developed a new gas, nitrogen mustard. Unlike phosgene and chlorine gas which were absorbed by breathing, mustard was absorbed through the skin. And before people start telling me how atrocious choking to death or via incurrable blisters and chemical skin burns or lung burns, and how horrible the Germans were, I will ask one question.

What is war about if not death and destruction. To quote Haber “Death is death, however it is inflicted.” While logically true, I find myself in a quasi paradox. While I agree with death’s finality, I hesitate to take such a Cartesian position when it comes to modalities. Apparently, I am not the only dissenter. Aided by the sight of millions of war cripples, young men whose larynges and lungs had been destroyed by gas, the postbellum world was not ready to tolerate any repetition of the horrors of gas warfare.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol on Gas Warfare

That is why all major WW1 powers met after the war in Switzerland to sign the Geneva Protocol of 1925 on Gas Warfare, also known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. The USSR, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, Ethiopia and the United States all signed the Protocol in 1925. However, the US waited for 50 years before ratifying it in 1975.

Incidentally, in the 1930s, Japan used chemical weapons in Taiwan and China, as did Italy in Ethiopia. Why did they do it? Because both perpetrators saw the Chinese and the Abyssinian / Ethiopian as parties not covered by the protection of international law. In other words, they thought they were following the spirit of the law (i.e., not use gas in world conflicts against ‘civilised’ opponents). As for the letter of the law, well, they knew that history is written by victors, so they figured they’d get away with it. Hypocrisy is as universal as humanity.

Interestingly enough, the Geneva Protocol was one of the few that all WW2 combatants actually abode by, for fear of the enemy retaliating in kind against their civilian population and military. Both England and Germany built up stockpiles of several chemical agents, more potent and nefarious than anything that Haber created. Fortunately, these weapons were not used in combat, although they was one accidental use of gas in WW2.

The Bari Incident 2 December 1943

Bari Harbour in the wake of Luftwaffe’s attack that destroyed 28 ships on 2 December 1943.

In 1943, the Allies invaded Italy and started pushing the Germans up and out of the Peninsula. After capturing the port of Bari, they started pushing military and humanitarian supplies through its harbour. Convoy after convoy discharged huge amounts of wares on its shores. Unfortunately for the people of Bari, one of the ships that got firebombed, SS John Harvey, was carrying a secret haul of 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60–70 lb of sulfur mustard. When the ship blew up, mustard gas was released in the harbour, with fatal consequences.

Overall, 1,000 people died in the air attack, 628 military personnel were hospitalised with mustard gas symptoms, and 83 expired.

Haber wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1918)

As for Fritz Haber, who started it all, well as always we cannot paint people with the same color brush. Things are rarely black and white. As it happens, the chap got the Nobel Prize (1918) for inventing ammonia synthesis in 1908, which produced a mini-green revolution by increasing fertilizer production, and by extension agricultural yields. So, the same man who invented gas warfare and whose weapons killed hundreds of thousand of people, redeemed himself by inventing the Haber nitrogen process, which accounts for half of all nitrogen in our bodies. Each year, the world produces thanks to the Haber method, 100 million tons of synthetic fertilizer.

Before the Haber method, the world scientists believed that the population would top out at 1.5 billion. Today, there’s almost 8 billion of us. Fritz Haber pulled bread out of the air. We owe him our lives.

Dr. Haber exemplified the power of science unleashed. In addition to inventing gas warfare, he also synthesised ammonia, which allowed Germany to continue fighting the war. At this point in the story, I must reacquaint the readers with the progress of another branch of science germane to the point I am making: epidemiology.

Epidemiology and microbiology: from miasma theory to germ theory of disease

Epidemiology is the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health. Why is it so important to the narrative? Because in the years leading to the Great War, a number of important breakthroughs had been made throughout the world, with a significant number occurring where else but in the German Empire.

It all started around the middle 19th century in Germany, where chemistry had taken off, and where doctors were starting to abandon childishly stupid medieval beliefs that miasmas caused disease. Instead, aided by ever so powerful optic instruments, the new field of microbiology was giving rise to novel theories that explained better why humans fell sick, allowing doctors and chemists to come up with new ways of fighting bacterial infections.

Two of the most respected microbiologists, who were instrumental in taking the fight to the enemy, curbing disease and inventing vaccines, were the rival duo of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Robert Koch (1843-1910). Together they did more to advance medicine than any other medical couple. They almost single-handedly laid to rest the miasma theory of contagion, and they established universal acceptance of the germ theory.

The two titans of modern medicine.

Koch (right) transformed bacteriology by introducing the technique of pure culture, whereby he established the microbial cause of the disease anthrax (1876), introduced both staining and solid culture plates to bacteriology (1881), identified the microbial cause of tuberculosis (1882), and popularized Koch’s postulates for identifying the microbial cause of a disease, and would later identify the microbial cause of cholera (1883). He also did important work on Tuberculin, which was supposed to treat tuberculosis (1890). In 1905, he received the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for his contribution to the study of tuberculosis.

Pasteur (left) discovered molecular chirality, investigated fermentation, refuted spontaneous generation, inspired Lister‘s introduction of antisepsis to surgery, introduced pasteurization to France’s wine industry, answered the silkworm diseases blighting France’s silkworm industry, attenuated a Pasteurella species of bacteria to develop vaccine to chicken cholera (1879), and introduced anthrax vaccine (1881). In 1885, he successfully vaccinated a 9-year old boy bitten by a rabid dog. Incidentally, Pasteur deserved a Nobel prize for his rabies vaccine and pasteurisation. Alas, he died 6 years before the award was created in 1901.

So far, so good. That’s all folks. At least for today, that is. In the days to come, I will be writing Part 2 of this blog. But before I leave, I want to do so on a slightly different note. One that shows that war is a nasty business, and total war is even nastier. The people are quick to condemn the Germans for using novel weapons of war. Perhaps we could all use a little refresher here and there. This way we’d discover that belligerents are quick to adapt and even overcome, as the saying goes. And cruelty is not a German trait, it is merely a human common enough feature. War just brings it to the surface the way water raises the grain in a piece of wood.

Anecdotally, when the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) led by General Pershing was sent by President Wilson to join the war effort in France, in mid 1917, the Doughboys also brought their Yankee can do attitude. Confronted with a severe shortage of modern weapons of war, a paradox by any account, given America’s industrial prowess, the Yanks resorted to enlisting practical firearms like the 1897 Winchester pump shotgun in the war effort.

Soon after their use of these effective but cruel trench cleaning guns, the German military launched an official protest arguing that the use of shotguns in warfare was illegal. The Americans and the rest of the world let out a short burst of laughter remarking between clenched teeth “That is rich coming from the people who invented gas and submarine warfare and deployed flamethrowers!” And that was the end of the protest. The AEF continued to use shotguns to clear German trenches.

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