Today sees the second part of Jeffrey A. Lockwood‘s three-part account of the creation of nerve gas through the synthesizing of insecticides. Check back tomorrow for the last part.
Jeffrey Lockwood is the author of Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War. You can read the first part of his blog here.
Schrader understood the strategic implications of his discovery. He named the chemical “tabun” and communicated his findings to Army Weapons Office in Berlin. A Nazi decree required that all inventions with military potential be reported, and they were especially keen to find a chemical that would improve on the agents used in World War I. Hitler’s objections notwithstanding, the Germans were fully aware that the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had successfully used mustard gas in his 1935 invasion of Ethiopia and—more importantly—there had been no international repercussions for the week-long chemical bombardment of the African nation. The Axis powers reasonably concluded that the Geneva Protocol was a convention of convenience—and chemical weapons were still viable if used with discretion against the proper opponent.
Schrader was summoned to Berlin to demonstrate the efficacy of his chemical to the military leaders, who were amazed with the power of tabun. They watched in horrified rapture as even a minuscule dose applied to the skin of a dog or a monkey immediately caused the animal’s pupils to shrink to pinpoints, after which it frothed at the mouth, vomited, and collapsed. As the gruesome demonstration progressed, the animal began to defecate uncontrollably, its limbs twitched, its entire body convulsed, and finally it died. The entire ordeal was mercifully completed within 15 minutes, although mercy was the farthest thing from the mind of the military. They were mesmerized by this chemical’s virtues—not only did it kill within minutes (phosgene and mustard gas took hours), but it was lethal though both inhalation and skin contact. Moreover, tabun was practically odorless; the enemy would never know what was coming until the ghastly symptoms took over their bodies.
The German military moved Schrader to a new facility at Elberfeld, providing him with state-of-the-art equipment and an undisturbed setting in which to continue his research on the organophosphates. Their faith in the chemist was well placed. In 1938 he discovered sarin, a compound with what he called an “astonishingly high” toxicity. Although the etymology of tabun seems to have been lost in history, “sarin” was an acronym honoring the key scientists involved in its discovery. The formula was dutifully delivered to the Wehrmacht’s laboratories in Berlin, where tests revealed a toxicity ten times that of tabun.
The deadliest organophosphate, soman, was isolated by Dr. Richard Kuhn, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Kuhn’s work on deadly chemicals came too late in the war for the Nazis to put his nerve gas into production. Discovered in 1944, soman completed the evil trinity of G-agents, so-named for either Germany or Gerhard (Schrader). There were two other G-agents, but these received only cryptic code-names and never became serious contenders for the Nazi’s nerve gas program. By the time of Kuhn’s discovery, the Germans were also beginning to understand why these chemicals were so lethal.
The organophosphates inhibit the enzyme responsible for breaking down acetylcholine. This chemical is the primary neurotransmitter in the human body, carrying impulses between nerve endings. Without the enzyme to deactivate the neurotransmitter, the signals continue unabated. With no way of stopping the nerves from firing, we cannot control our bowels, muscles, or breathing—and a grisly death follows in short order. But the Nazis didn’t need to know how these insecticides-cum-nerve gases worked in order to understand that they had the potential to turn the course of the war.