The Dogs of Science Hall—Tone Madison

What does all of this mean? To try to answer that question, we need to consider three sets of facts we have on hand. First, there are the rooms themselves, with their dog cages, windowless chambers, ceiling ventilation and soundproof construction. Second, we know that medical research was being conducted in the building at this time and that Medical School labs were close by on the fourth floor. Third, there is the historical context to consider. In April of 1917, a few months before these renovation plans were drafted, the United States had declared war on Germany and entered the First World War. An immediate concern was poison gas, which Britain, France, and Germany were all using as a chemical weapon. By mid-1917, the federal government and the War Department had launched a war gas research program that eventually enrolled hundreds of scientists from universities and private labs across the country. From the very beginning, researchers employed animals, especially dogs, as experimental subjects.

US chemical warfare research during the First World War

The first use of poisonous gas in the First World War was a German chlorine gas attack against British troops in April of 1915. The British, initially outraged, soon decided to fight fire with fire and an arms race escalated quickly, as historian Jeffrey Allan Johnson detailed in a 2017 paper. When the US entered the war two years later, the chemical arsenal of the combatants had grown to include asphyxiants like phosgene, lung irritants like chloropicrin (also spelled chlorpicrin), various compounds of arsenic and cyanide, and blistering agents (vesicants) like mustard gas .

Like Britain and France, the United States adopted a bellicose stance upon entering the war. An editorial in the December 1917 issue of the American magazine Illustrated World, quoted in a 1969 PhD thesis by historian and chemist Daniel Patrick Jones, observed,

Chemical knowledge of destructive substances is not limited to the German mind or German textbooks. There are among us chemists who can meet them upon their own ground and go them one better in devilish inventiveness if it is so desired.

After declaring war in April of 1917, the US government quickly launched a program focused on large-scale gas production and the creation of new gases and methods of delivery. By the end of the war in November of 1918, less than two years later, the US was producing twice as much poison gas as Britain, France, and Germany combined. Gas production in the US had grown to encompass at least 10 facilities. The Army’s main chemical warfare plant, Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, had more than 10,000 workers at peak production, according to the Army’s own accounting in The Chemical Warfare Service: From Laboratory To Field. Other plants included repurposed commercial chemical factories in Ohio, New York, Michigan, and Connecticut. At full capacity, this network of plants was capable of producing over 4,000 tons of poison gas per month, including chlorine, phosgene, chloropicrin, mustard gas, and lewisite, the latter being a US innovation. Theo Emery chronicles this explosion of chemical-weapons research in the 2017 book Hellfire Boys.

When the war was over almost 11,000 tons of gas had been produced domestically. The Army’s First Gas Regiment reached the front lines in the spring of 1918 and deployed thousands of gas shells and canisters against the German Army. But as this was already late in the war, gas use by US forces never matched its domestic production levels, let alone its planned capacity. In fact, despite soaring domestic production levels, the US Army did not employ any domestically produced gas in the war, relying instead on British and French weapons, according to a Department of Defense history of US chemical warfare. If the war had continued into 1919, the US and its allies were prepared to use their stockpiles in massive gas attacks, including aerial bombardments, against Germany, Jeffrey Allan Johnson claims. At the end of the war, these plans were abandoned. Emery details how hundreds of tons of surplus gas in barrels and artillery shells were simply dumped into the ocean.

The rapidity with which production facilities were established led to a problem: injuries to plant workers resulting from accidental exposure to toxic chemicals. At the Edgewood plant in Maryland, Emery writes in Hellfire Boysthere were 279 casualties in one month alone in 1918. Much of the impetus behind the war gas research program was to protect the workers in gas production facilities, and the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service history cites this as a major focus of the research effort at the University of Wisconsin.

Despite its obvious military applications, it was the Bureau of Mines in the Department of the Interior that initially coordinated chemical warfare research in the United States. This made sense, because the Bureau was already involved in research on mine gasses and self-contained breathing devices. In early 1917, the Director of the Bureau of Mines, Vannoy Manning, offered the Bureau’s services to the War Department for chemical warfare research. He made this offer through the National Research Council, which had been formed in 1916 under the National Academy of Sciences. During the war the Council’s Military Committee acted as an intermediary between the Army, which posed research problems, and scientists at universities, who carried out the work, Daniel Patrick Jones notes in his 1969 UW-Madison PhD thesis.

In April of 1917, with a declaration of imminent war, the Council’s Military Committee added a Subcommittee on Noxious Gases chaired by Manning. The Subcommittee was charged with conducting research into the generation of toxic gases and developing antidotes to them. The Subcommittee’s subsequent plan for research gave the Bureau of Mines its authority to conduct chemical warfare research.

Staff of the research program initially included several engineers and chemists from the Bureau of Mines, as well as Dr. Yandell Henderson, Professor of Physiology at Yale University and a consultant with the Bureau of Mines. Henderson was put in charge of medical research including

physiological investigations of gas masks, pharmacological gassing experiments on men and on animals, pathological gross and microscopic study of gassed animals, and pathological chemistry of disorders of gassed animals. ( p. 17)

Henderson set up a makeshift lab under the bleachers on the baseball field at Yale to begin gas experiments on animals, Emery writes in Hellfire Boys. Apparently the demand for test animals was so great that even the dog pounds in New Haven could not keep up, and Henderson’s team sent out requests to the mayors of cities up and down the east coast to round up stray animals. Eventually Henderson became Director of the Toxicology, Therapeutic, Pathological and Physiological divisions at Yale, which accounted for over 40 military personnel and almost 20 civilian employees. Like other universities, Yale was eager to contribute to the war effort by supplying lab space and releasing faculty from their teaching duties, according to a Yale-published history of this period.

With scientists and lab space in short supply, the Subcommittee on Noxious Gases was granted authority to accept offers of assistance from scientists in the private sector and universities. Manning probed for interest by conducting a nationwide census of chemists that eventually received over 22,000 responses, Emery writes. The census was conducted with the assistance of the American Chemical Society, a strong advocate for the involvement of chemists in the war effort and one of the groups that successfully lobbied the government to continue chemical warfare research after the war ended.

By the end of 1917, the Bureau of Mines had obtained the aid of labs in three industrial companies, three government agencies, and 21 universities. The list of universities eventually included Bryn Mawr, Catholic, Chicago, Clark, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, MIT, Ohio State, Princeton, Wisconsin, and Yale, according to the Bureau of Mines records from that time. This cooperation was possible, in part, because the field of chemistry in Europe and the US was highly industrialized and marked by a well-developed academic-industrial network. This in turn was the result of the academic-industrial symbiosis that evolved out of the chemical dye industry, which ironically was dominated by German interests, even in the US

An important partner for the Bureau of Mines was American University in Washington, DC, which had offered its buildings and grounds for free to the Army for the duration of the war. American became the main center of chemical warfare research in the United States. By late 1917, research facilities had been constructed at American, including kennels to hold over 700 dogs. Researchers across the country, including Henderson at Yale, transferred their experimental equipment and animals to American University for the duration of the war.

By September of 1917, students and professors at the University of Wisconsin had begun researching safety measures for workers at gas-production facilities. The University’s role in this area became more formalized in February of 1918, when the factory protection section of the Gas Defense Service was created to study the chronic effects of exposure to war gases, and test protective devices and therapeutic treatments. (Figure 6)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.