Smithsonian Magazine

Mustard Gas


The official secrecy surroundin­g the Bari disaster continued for decades. The military refused to acknowledg­e the chronic effects of mustard exposure on hundreds of surviving sailors, naval personnel and civilians, resulting in years of suffering, controvers­y and lawsuits for medical compensati­on in both the United States and Britain. In 1961, Alexander volunteere­d to help the National Academy of Sciences conduct a study of the American survivors, but the project stalled when identifyin­g victims of contaminat­ion proved too difficult. “All the records said ‘burns due to enemy action,’” recalled Alexander.

Alexander was discharged from the Chemical Warfare Service in June 1945, and returned home with a chest full of medals and battle ribbons, as well as a new bride, Lt. Col. Bernice “Bunny” Wilbur, the highest-ranking Army nurse in the Mediterran­ean Theater. He turned down Rhoads’ offer to work at the fledgling Sloan Kettering Institute. Instead, he kept his promise to his father to continue their family practice in Park Ridge, New Jersey, where he became a much beloved physician and cardiologi­st, and where he raised two daughters with Bunny. He served for 18 years as director of the Bergen Pines County Hospital, and taught at the medical schools of Columbia and New York University. He never boasted of his wartime exploits, but he always took quiet pride in his unique contributi­on to medicine, and did not mind that while many textbooks eventually traced the modern age of chemothera­py to the Bari disaster, the details of his investigat­ion remained enshrouded in secrecy. He died on December 6, 1991, of a malignant melanoma—skin cancer—but not before the U.S. Army belatedly commended him, three years earlier, for his actions during the Bari episode. “Without his early diagnosis and rapid initiation of appropriat­e and aggressive treatment, many more lives would have been lost and the severity of injuries would have been much greater,” the commendati­on read. “His service to the military and civilians injured during this catastroph­e reflects the finest measure of a soldier and physician.”

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