Medical Aspects of Chemical Warfare
years. Some scholars suggest that the English colonists at Jamestown were poisoned with arsenic trioxide by Spanish operatives intent on maintaining a monopoly in the New World. Throughout history, individuals used plant poisons and chemicals to remove romantic and political rivals, despotic rulers, prisoners, and even unwanted spouses. Despite these small-scale uses of chemical poisons before the 20th century, military use of chemicals was rare. In the early 20th century, World War I changed the face of warfare with the use of chemicals on a massive scale. This chapter, the first in a series of three chapters on the history of chemical warfare, focuses on the histori-cal development of chemical warfare, its large-scale use during World War I, post–World War I incidents of chemical warfare, legislative efforts to ban chemi-cal agent use, chemical warfare plans during World War II, and chemical warfare and terrorism today. The discussion will emphasize the historical experiences of the United States on the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It will be followed by Chapter 3, History of the Medical Management of Chemical Casualties, and Chapter 4, History of the Chemical Threat, Chemical Terrorism, and the Implications for Military Medicine.A chemical agent is a substance “intended for use in military operations to kill, seriously injure, or inca-pacitate man because of its physiological effects.”
Chemical warfare agents cause injuries directly by irritation, burning, or asphyxiation, and indirectly by contaminating ground so that it cannot be safely occupied, creating smoke screens to obscure opera-tions or reduce the accuracy of an enemy’s firepower, and damaging an enemy’s equipment by incendiary action. In short, chemical warfare is the use of any synthetic compound or material designed and used for the purpose of harming others. In the modern era, chemical agents have been divided into five categories: nerve agents, vesicants, choking agents, blood agents, and incapacitants. Excluded from consideration in this chapter are riot control agents, chemical herbicides, and smoke and flame materials.Chemical warfare evolved from studies of plant poisons by ancient Egyptian and Indian civilizations to the studies of Aristotle, Mithridates, Galen, da Vinci, and Nobel scientists at the turn of the 20th century.
The concept that chemicals can be used as deadly poisons on a small scale has been understood since the start of written civilization, and evidence of their use has pervaded myth and history for thousands of
CHEMICAL CONCOCTIONS USED IN BATTLEToxic Smokes
The first recorded history from civilizations in Egypt, Babylon, India, and China contain references to deadly poisons. The first pharaoh, Menes, cultivated, studied, and accumulated poisons from plants, ani-mals, and minerals in 3000
. Egyptians also investi-gated the lethal effects of hydrocyanic acid.
Beginning in 2000
the great dynasties in India used smoke screens, toxic sleep-inducing fumes, and incendiary devices on a large scale during battle.
Chinese writ-ings from 1000
contain recipes for the production of poisonous, noxious, and irritant vapors for use in war, including arsenic-containing “soul-hunting fog.” The Chinese also developed stink bombs of poisonous smoke and shrapnel, along with a chemical mortar that fired cast-iron “stink” shells.
The powerful city-states of ancient Greece also experimented with chemical concoctions. During the First Sacred War in 590
, Athens and Sicyon plotted to lay siege to the fortified city of Kirrha in retaliation for the harassment of pilgrims to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Solon, the sage of Athens, had the River Pleistos, the main water supply to Kirrha, poisoned with hellebore roots, causing diarrhea that led to the defeat of the besieged city (as described by Pausanias in 150
. Thucydides described the first use of chemical warfare in Western civilization, by Sparta against Ath-ens, in his
History of the Peloponnesian War
). During the siege of Plataea in 428
, wood was satu-rated with pitch and sulfur to generate arsenic smoke, and then burned under the walls of the city to produce poisonous choking fumes (as well as fear and panic). A rainstorm minimized the effect, but the strategy was successfully employed again by Sparta and its allies during the siege of Delium, an Athenian fortification, in 424
. Dating from the 4th century
, Mohist sect manuscripts in China describe chemical tactics employed against entrenched, well-defended armies in caves and tunnels, using bellows to pump smoke from burning balls of mustard and other toxic plants.
Chemical warfare was also practiced during the time of the Roman empire. About 200
, the Carthaginians left mandrake root in wine to sedate the enemy.
Inhab-itants of Ambracia in Epirus used toxic smoke to deter the Romans from breaching their walls.