Dew of Death

Dew of Death

The Story of Lewisite, America's World War I Weapon of Mass Destruction
Joel A. Vilensky
With the assistance of Pandy R. Sinish
Foreword by Richard Butler
Distribution: World
Publication date: 8/16/2005
ISBN: 978-0-253-11152-4
Bookmark and Share

Available through various retailers


“Dr. Vilensky raises important concerns regarding the threats posed by lewisite and other weapons of mass destruction. As he describes, non-proliferation programs are a vital component in the War on Terror.” —Richard G. Lugar, United States Senator

“Joel Vilensky’s book is a detailed and immensely useful account of the development and history of one of the major chemical weapons. . . . We will always know how to make lewisite, the ‘Dew of Death,’ but that does not mean that we should, or be compelled to accept such weapons in our lives.” —from the Foreword by Richard Butler, former head of UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq

In 1919, when the Great War was over, the New York Times reported on a new chemical weapon with “the fragrance of geranium blossoms,” a poison gas that was “the climax of this country’s achievements in the lethal arts.” The name of this substance was lewisite and this is its story—the story of an American weapon of mass destruction.

Discovered by accident by a graduate student and priest in a chemistry laboratory at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., lewisite was developed into a weapon by Winford Lewis, who became its namesake, working with a team led by James Conant, later president of Harvard and head of government oversight for the U.S.'s atomic bomb program, the Manhattan Project. After a powerful German counterattack in the spring of 1918, the government began frantic production of lewisite in hopes of delivering 3,000 tons of the stuff to be ready for use in Europe the following year. The end of war came just as the first shipment was being prepared. It was dumped into the sea, but not forgotten.

Joel A. Vilensky tells the intriguing story of the discovery and development of lewisite and its curious history. During World War II, the United States produced more than 20,000 tons of lewisite, testing it on soldiers and secretly dropping it from airplanes. In the end, the substance was abandoned as a weapon because it was too unstable under most combat conditions. But a weapon once discovered never disappears. It was used by Japan in Manchuria and by Iraq in its war with Iran. The Soviet Union was once a major manufacturer. Strangely enough, although it was developed for lethal purposes, lewisite led to an effective treatment for a rare neurological disease.

Author Bio

Joel A. Vilensky is Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. His interest in the history of lewisite stems from research on the history of Wilson's disease, which was first successfully treated using British Anti-Lewisite in 1951. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Customer Reviews

There are currently no reviews
Write a review on this title.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Richard Butler
1. 1878: Two Stars Are Born
2. The Poisonous Yellow Cloud and the American Response
3. The Hunt for a New King
4. The American University Experimental Station
5. Willoughby: The Chemical Warfare Service's Ace in the Hole
6. The Inter-War Years
7. Military Biology and BAL
8. World War II: The Gas War That Never Happened
9. Lewisite Production, Use, and Sea Dumping after World War II
10. Lewisite Stockpiles and Terrestrial Residues
11. Human and Environmental Toxicology
12. Lewisite, Terrorism, and the Future
Appendix 1. Lewisite's Chemical and Physical Properties
Appendix 2. Lewisite Production
Appendix 3. Lewisite Degradation