The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer

Norton. Sept. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781324002505. $27.95. HEALTH
Conant has written another interesting story from World War II in the vein of some of her previous books, such as A Covert Affair or The Irregulars. Here, she recounts the bombing of multiple Allied warships in Bari, Italy, on December 2, 1943. Dr. Stewart Alexander, a lieutenant colonel and chemical weapons specialist, was sent to investigate the casualties for the United States. Secrecy and classified reports delayed the findings of his investigations, but eventually he discovered soldiers dying of mysterious symptoms, and his work was used to develop mustard gas–based chemotherapy at the new Sloan Kettering Institute in 1946. This is a well-researched and thoughtful medical history of the events at Bari through the lens of the doctor who saved lives by recognizing the signs of mustard gas poisoning, despite denials by military leaders. Conant effectively brings to life the people involved, with small details and anecdotes. While there are other books about the incident at Bari and the cover up, this book focuses on Alexander and his medical investigation.
VERDICT A fast-paced read for fans of narrative nonfiction.
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