- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 18 Oct 1932, p. 239-249
- Irvine, Sir James, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- The warning to be heeded in the words "Lest we forget." The speaker's belief that through the whole story of civilization, chemistry runs like a scarlet thread throughout the entire fabric. What the chemist provides during war time. Another form of chemical research which proved of vital importance to our army during the war: finding an artificial method of making dulcitol, used to protect the troops from typhoid fever. The story of using dahlias to produce the same compound. The demand for novocaine, a local anaesthetic, and the story of its production. The golfing girls who worked so diligently during the war years in the chemical labs. A lesson for Canada from the speaker: "No nation can ever allow itself to become dependent scientifically on other nations." Some words on the progress of Canadian science. Suffering by Canadian soldiers during gas attacks in the Great War. Powers committed to chemists during the war. A review of poisonous gases used during the war. The issue of reprisals. The use of mustard gas by both sides. The question of disarmament. Is it to be war or peace? The ability of a country to wage war based on chemical warfare, no matter what disarmament takes place. A warning from the speaker that what is needed is a change of heart. The inability to bring about universal peace by regulations. The hope that the civil population will be trained in anti-gas measures. Taking precaution against what may happen in the future. Ending on a note of confidence in humankind.
- Date of Original
- 18 Oct 1932
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- Full Text
- CHEMISTRY IN WAR TIME
AN ADDRESS By SIR JAMES IRVINE, C.B.E., F.R.S.
Tuesday, October 18, 1932.
LIEUT.-COLONEL GEORGE A. DREW, President, introduced the speaker.
SIR JAMES IRVINE: My first words must be words of gratitude to you for affording me this opportunity of meeting you and being your guest today. If I plunge into my subject without any more preliminaries you will forgive me. It was perfectly true, tragically true, that in the years succeeding the Great War many people suffering bereavements and afflicted with troubles and losses, domestic and otherwise, were tired of the name of War and could not bring their minds to dwell upon it. One can understand that attitude because it is too well justified. In the words "Lest we forget" there is a warning, and to that warning we must pay attention. We must not forget the war. We must not forget the sacrifices then made. We must not allow all that heroism and fortitude to be swallowed up in dwelling exclusively an the economic and financial consequences of the war. You will remember that in the early period of the war Mr. Lloyd George, in making one of his most brilliant and stirring speeches, used the expression, "This is a war of engineers." Now, with that I can hardly agree. It was a war of soldiers, and all other forms of help were really only incidental to the work of the soldier, the man with the gun and bayonet. But if it was a war of engineers, surely it was also a war of physicians and surgeons, and to an equal extent a war of chemists. Remember it is not sufficient to create an army. An army must be equipped; it must be drilled, and in wartime the soldier has to live under artificial conditions, conditions which are opposed to the preservation of health. The soldier must be nourished, sustained and comforted when wounded so that the work falls on every soldier.
My belief is that through the whole story of civilization, chemistry runs like a scarlet thread throughout the entire fabric. It is the chemist who produces the deadly shells, the deadly gas. It is also the chemist who controls the purity of the foodstuffs necessary to maintain huge armies in modern warfare. It is the chemist who provides the anaesthetics which tend so much to alleviate pain, and as the Great War progressed it was the chemists who were called upon to face unexpected problems which arose, and one of the greatest problems was to meet the unknown poison sent over by the Germans, and it was the chemist that was asked to provide means for justifiable retaliation. These things are generally recognized. From the beginning of the last Great War,, the chemical factories worked night and day; no task was too stupendous, too dangerous for them to undertake.
I would like to call your attention to another form of chemical research which proved of vital importance to our army during the war. In recollection or imagination we go back to the summer days of 1914. 1 would ask you to picture me working in my laboratory, engaged in the most peaceful form of chemical research work, namely dealing with the rare sugars. I was concerned with a very obscure thing which registered under the name of dulcitol. It was a chemical rarety, and I became fascinated with it, and indeed broke off part of my holidays to prosecute that research. At that time there was no thought in my mind that I was preparing myself to play a part in the great conflict of the nations of the world. Little did I dream that in a very few weeks after the opening of the war this material called dulcitol was going become such an important factor on behalf of the nation. This material, dulcitol, sprung into a position of first importance. It was material on which the bacteriologists depended so much as a preventive against typhoid fever and other fevers. The lesson was known. We had that grisly lesson from the Boer War, where it was calculated that more men fell from typhoid fever than by shell or bullet. We had the lesson in the Russian-Japanese War, and our bacteriologists had to be trained on the necessary materials with which they had to work. This material, however, was not forthcoming. It was manufactured almost exclusively in Germany. I don't wish to romance. I know there were many factors which dictated the date of the great war, but I shall never have the conviction removed from my mind that one of the factors was that Germany believed that the British Empire would be unable to provide this bacteriological sugar on which the troops would so largely depend. Within a few weeks of the opening of hostilities dulcitol was being searched for all over the world. Even a few grammes of this compound were in sore demand. An ounce of this material was costing 920 sterling. We could not get dulcitol, and it was at this stage that an appeal was made to the university, so you can see, gentlemen, that the situation was desperate. It was at that stage that I was called away in order to organize the direction and preparation of this material. I don't wish to take up your time by going into too many details, but sufficient for me to tell you that my task was to try and produce or find an artificial method of making dulcitol. That had been done once before by an eminent German chemist who had succeeded in preparing something like the fifth part of an ounce, which process had cost over 9 100. We required dulcitol at the rate of five pounds per week, but when the claims of France and Russia had to be met that figure reached as high as fifteen pounds per week. To make a long story short, I succeeded in working out a method of preparing dulcitol that proved to -be successful, and immediately the quadrangles of St. Andrews University were invaded. Work shops were erected all over, and this venerable old university became the scene of great activity, and under my direction dulcitol was produced. In eighteen months we were successful in providing not only a substitute for dulcitol, but actually the same compound, identical in every respect with the natural drug. In due course a factory was erected to undertake this work, and I could see the day drawing very close when our bacteriologists would have no difficulty whatever in getting enough of this material. New and still more complicated demands were made on the bacteriologists, and still more sugar was needed. At last we discovered that a natural source of this material lay in the fibres of the dahlia, and instantly we set to work to get these flowers in, large quantities. Boy Scouts rendered magnificent work in this respect, and in the early part of July, 1915, we were busily employed extracting this valuable material from the dahlias which arrived in barrels, crates, boxes, and every kind of receptable. Appeals were made through the press and met with a wonderful response. This reminds me of the old lady who sent me some of her finest dahlias which she said had won for her many prizes at the local horticultural shows. She was a competitor each year, and it was with some misgivings that she sent me on the flowers. In a letter she requested me to tell her if her particular dahlias produced better material than the ordinary dahlias. I did not tell her because everything went into the mincing pot. (Laughter.)
In the summer of 1916 there were fewer dahlias in the gardens of England and other parts of Great Britain, but at the same time there were fewer victims of meningitis and other deadly troubles. While this work was going on, another demand had arisen for drugs. These are complicated substances and the supplies had failed. Of all these anaesthetic: drugs the greatest demand was for a material known as novocaine, a local anaesthetic which for many reasons is an extremely useful drug, especially on the -battle field and in the hospitals. A large amount of novocaine was required and we were called upon to produce it. I am not here to boast, but I can best crystallize the results when I say forty laboratories were engaged in this all important, nay vitally important work. The factory where I worked produced more than one hundredweight. I quote that as merely an example of how a task of that kind was undertaken and successfully accomplished. It required skilled work -to carry on the mechanical work of the war, but it also required the skill work-the skilled hand and brain to meet such emergencies as I have described.
We had in our possession the German methods of making novocaine. But why is it that many people thought the German methods were best because they happened to be German? Our particular policy was to train our chemists in this great worktrain them as to its importance and use unskilled people to carry out the routine work which was done largely by volunteers. I take off my hat to these gallant volunteers. Sometimes I was apt to be critical, perhaps a little too critical, of the young lady who might be described as the golfing girl-the young lady who, after a brilliant round of golf, played equally as well a game or two of bridge in the evening and danced with grace at the fashionable ball. Never again will I criticize them, because my temprorary factories were staffed by golfing girls. (Applause.) They worked seven days a week during these terrible testing times. They worked all day. There was no night shift, but their hours were long and trying. I shall never forget thinking that there had been many scenes enacted in the chequered history of St. Andrews, but surely nothing more striking than the scenes I then witnessed. To see these people, sometimes disfigured with chemicals, exhausted with the heat, suffering from. temporary anemia from breathing the anaesthetic fumes, struggling at work-was a moving spectacle. It was a triumph of human fortitude and endurance which showed what spirit can accomplish. (Applause.)
There is just one lesson I would like to urge before passing to another phase of chemist's work in war time. It is a message which applies equally to Canada as well as any other nation. No nation can ever allow itself to 'become dependent scientifically on other nations. We must be scientifically self-supporting or disaster will assuredly follow. (Applause.) May I intervene with one word of local or Dominion application. It is to me of immense delight to see the progress which has been, made recently in scientific research, and more of late in the Dominion of Canada. You have in Ottawa today a very great research institute, and a National Research Council. You have in Toronto other research institutions seconding this, and the great university work actively bringing together information which will be of immense service to the nation as a whole, which will be of immense service to the Empire. From all the indications it appears that in a very short time Canada will be scientifically self -supporting. (Applause.) I would not have you think, gentlemen, that when I was engaged in the work which I have so feebly described to you I was altogether indifferent to what was going on. I was certainly actively engaged with the chemical compound. I was interested in it and I was proud that I had been of some service to the nation. At the same time, there is a spirit inherent in mankind which makes men long to join in the practical issues of warfare. One cannot forget that the first duty of the soldier is to incapacitate his enemy, and the opportunity came to the chemist with a clear conscience. It came after that tragic trial in 1915, when without warning and in defiance of her own pledged word, the German army poured waves of chlorine gas over on to our troops. One does not care to talk in Canada much about that. I hope you know, gentlemen, that it will never be forgotten that the Canadians bore the brunt of that attack. It is impossible to picture that scene in imagination, to see these men, trained to endurance, trained to high explosives, trained to suffer innumerable shocks, to be suddenly overwhelmed, as undoubtedly they were that day, by the unknown, by choking suffocating gas. It was enough to put the fear of death into the strongest hearts, to, daunt and overwhelm the courage of the bravest troops. It is almost inconceivable, and it spoke volumes for human fortitude that the troops were able to live through that awful ordeal and nerve-wracking strain. It is impossible to account for the way the Canadians stood their ground that day. But they did so, and it will redound to their everlasting credit. (Applause.)
But this gas used by the Germans that day came as no surprise to chemists. Chemists know the great powers which are committed to them as the result of research and study. Do you remember the interesting book written by Wilkie Collins in 1867--The Woman in Whitewherein one of his most delightful characters, a great chemist, after dwelling in a conversation on all the horrors and destruction which could be accomplished by chemicals took consolation in the fact that chemists were after all harmless-the most harmless of mankind? (Applause.) Never before in the world's history did chemists realise as much as during the progress of the war the powers committed to them. As the war progressed every chemist was thinking how he might utilize these powers in warfare. There was the Hague Convention of 1907, in which all the nations had bound themselves to abstain from any form of warfare in which poisonous gas explosives were used. Germany had signed that. Not only was she a signatory, but she was one of the nations who had proposed that no explosives of that kind be used. Great Britain had also signed it, but with the proviso that if any nation broke that contract it would reserve the right for reprisals. These first German attacks were crude in the extreme, and the respirators which our troops wore to combat the deadly gas fumes were but clumsy things, but by and by the PH helmet was introduced, and after that a much more scientific respirator, and our troops then seemed to be adequately protected. There then arose the cry about the righteousness or unrighteousness of reprisals. If we had not adopted reprisals in the war there would have been no alternative but surrender.
And then came the next phase, when cloud gas was replaced by gas shelling so that poissonous gas could be distributed at longer ranges and independent of the configuration of the ground or of the wind. All nations by this time were eagerly seeking an ideal gas. In scientific terms the ideal gas is gas which keeps low, and in warfare it is the gas that is preferable to any other. This gas, without smell and heavier than air, was the gas that was wanted, gas which did not produce choking or blinding sensations, and did its work, its deadly work, without its victim being conscious of its presence. That is the ideal gas. It is a dreadful gas, but that ideal gas has not been discovered. During the War we came near it in the production of a gas known as phosgene. The respirators issued to our troops were satisfactory in the year 1917, and we gave the enemy as much as he was giving us, and I would say a little more. Our respirators were better than his kind, and the situation seemed more satisfactory until suddenly and without warning the War entered on an entirely new and sinister phase. I refer to the use of that substance which goes under the name of mustard gas. It was used near Ypres, and the town was filled with the contents of these cruel cross shells. We had not the slightest idea what the contents of these shells were. Most of the casualties occurred not only in Ypres but almost behind it. Men died in dugouts who had never been near the line at all, so deadly was this gas. At last we found out what it contained. We found what the contents of these mysterious shells were. It was not a typical shell gas at all. It was a dark brown oily liquid which lay about the ground and persisted and in the end got its victim. You think of the powers of an ordinary gas shell if you are hit by a splinter. The air is poisoned in your vicinity for the time being, but it is different with this deadly gas because it lies upon the ground and a man's hands and feet can become poisoned. You get it on your boots, and some of its symptoms are an acute blistering of the skin behind the ears. This persistence in the ground was the most dangerous quality possessed by this mustard gas. I would like to pay a great tribute here to the chemists who worked behind the lines, who worked in crowded factories. These chemists actually found out another type of mustard gas. They found it was not a new substance. They found out that it had been discovered years ago by a professor in Edinburgh, by a gentlemen of the name of Guthrie, and to me it is a remarkable thing that that discovery was made just about the same time when Wilkie Collins wrote that famous book to which I have referred, "The Woman In White".
Well, Germany had been preparing for at least three years for the manufacture of mustard gas, and we had it ready inside a year, and that is remarkable fast going. But what is more important, we produced mustard gas of more effectiveness than that produced by the Germans. We produced a gas and it was used extensively towards the latter part of the War. We prepared it in large quantities, and in the closing phases of the War, in March, 1918, the German. troops were being pushed back. Their batteries were being plastered with drums full of our deadly gas. Add to all these things, and all that I have described, all the normal horrors of war and you will realize that the world was hastening to destruction.
Well, the War ended and some people talked glibly about the next war. Others are talking of disarmament, and I lay the problem before you. Is it to be war or peace? Are we going to have disarmament? We want peace in the world and is war to stop? Is it possible to effect any security, and will disarmament bring the world or save the world from a reproduction of all the horrors I have so imperfectly attempted to describe? Are treaties sufficient? I answer my own question. You as a nation may disarm; munition factories may be razed to the ground and all the munitions of war swept aside and demolished. A nation's fortifications may be swept away, but I say this-as long as the chemical factory remains, as long as the aeroplane remains, that nation can potentially re-arm and conduct a war based on chemical warfare. You don't need a gun to fire a poison shell. You can drop a poison bomb from an aeroplane. You can prepare the most deadly poisons in the guise of a perfectly innocent looking factory. There are many chemical factories, and in the course of a few years or more such factories could be utilized for the production of gas poisons. These can be dropped from an aeroplane, and their easiest objective would be the civil population. Now, I am not an alarmist, but I have tried to point out to you the great powers which chemists have committed to them and the deadly nature of the materials which they can manufacture. I am not swept off my feet by sensational articles in the daily press regarding the discovery of gas poisons of incalculable potency. I know they don't exist today, but, as I said, one cannot tell or plumb the resources of chemistry. I have such a perfect faith in the powers of chemistry, in the inexhaustible resources of chemistry that I view the possibility of future chemical warfare with grave misgivings. Now, what is the cure? Treaties are all very well but treaties have failed. We have learned the inefficiency of treaties in the last war. Do you feel that I am running away from my subject when I speak to you in a manner which you might think somewhat pessimistic? I am only uttering a warning, and I say this that what is required in the world today is a change of heart. It is the only thing. You cannot bring about universal peace by regulations. Only a change in the outlook of mankind will do away with all the horrors of modern warfare. What does that mean? We have to take all these things and give them our deepest concern. Again I say I am not an alarmist, But I would like to see at any rate the civil population trained in anti-gas measures, for however much we desire universal peace we must at least take precautions against what may happen in the future. As the great orator Burke said in 1776 "to be fully persuaded that old virtue resides in something which is impracticable is a spurious mode of thought." My belief is for the time being universal peace is impracticable and to pursue it is a spurious mode of thought. But after discussing these difficulties if I end on a note of confidence you will realize what my attitude is towards human life. I have a feeling that man is imbued with a far richer and grander spirit than we give him credit for, and it may be that these terrible days of world depression are the first stepping stones towards the development of a purer and finer spirit. I take my stand with Mr. Baldwin who recently said, "I profess myself an optimist and I am an optimist because I am a realist." (Prolonged applause.)