Science History Review: The Great Secret

October 11, 2021 Uncategorized 3 ★★★½

Science History Review: The Great SecretTitle: The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster that Launched the War on Cancer
Author: Jennet Conant
Source: Library
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) Rating:three-half-stars

Summary: This was an interesting, well written story that quoted lots of primary sources, but it suffered from repetitive and unclear sections.

I picked this up for my book club and I had low expectations. Based on the subtitle, I was concerned this would be a conspiracy-theory focused book. Instead, it was a fascinating story of doctor and researcher, Stewart Alexander,  who realized that mustard gas could be useful for chemotherapy. I thought it was pretty incredible that as early as the 1940s, scientists realized that one of the greatest challenges with cancer is distinguishing cancer cells from normal ones. The specific impact of mustard gas on only white blood cells therefore made it a good candidate for targeting cancers that impact these cells. The military disaster that allowed Alexander to study the impact of mustard gas on humans and the subsequence cover up made for a more action beginning to this story.

This book had a lot of the elements I look for in great narrative nonfiction. The author focuses in on individuals to explain what experiencing the events of the book was like. She also directly quotes a lot of primary sources and included helpful maps and pictures of the people involved. My enjoyment of the primary quotes was reduced by the terrible font they were written with in my hard cover edition. The font looked like it came from a typewriter, but was also faded to make it look older. It wasn’t the easiest to read.

I found parts of the story repetitive, as we followed Alexander through several different investigations of the military disaster he studied. I also thought the author overstated the importance of Alexander’s investigation to the health of the men exposed to mustard gas. By the time he was involved, it was largely too late fir any treatments known at the time. My science nonfiction book club also noted that we really only get into the science in the second half of the book. I think that was only a negative given our specific interest in the story though and even people who don’t typically like war histories, enjoyed this book. The science does begin to be explained in more detail as you go though.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read and definitely worth picking up if you’re particularly interested in the topic. It did fall short of being such good narrative nonfiction that I’d recommend it otherwise.

3 Responses to “Science History Review: The Great Secret”

  1. Rennie

    Ooh this sounds super interesting, and I don’t think I know anything about this story at all. I may give this one a try. I’m interested in the science of it but I don’t think the slow start on that part would bother me much. Good to know about this one!

    • DoingDewey

      Perhaps because of the cover-up immediately after the bombing, this seems to be a very little known story! One of the guys in my book club is a real WWII buff and has read books specifically on the Italian front without coming across anything about this incident before.

  2. maphead

    Holy cow, I stumbled on this little known secret from history only recently and had no idea someone wrote a book about it. Thanks for posting your review!

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