The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer

Jennet Conant (Author)


On the night of December 2, 1943, the Luftwaffe bombed a critical Allied port in Bari, Italy, sinking seventeen ships and killing over a thousand servicemen and hundreds of civilians. Caught in the surprise air raid was the John Harvey, an American Liberty ship carrying a top-secret cargo of 2,000 mustard bombs to be used in retaliation if the Germans resorted to gas warfare.

When one young sailor after another began suddenly dying of mysterious symptoms, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Alexander, a doctor and chemical weapons expert, was dispatched to investigate. He quickly diagnosed mustard gas exposure, but was overruled by British officials determined to cover up the presence of poison gas in the devastating naval disaster, which the press dubbed "little Pearl Harbor." Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower acted in concert to suppress the truth, insisting the censorship was necessitated by military security.

Alexander defied British port officials and heroically persevered in his investigation. His final report on the Bari casualties was immediately classified, but not before his breakthrough observations about the toxic effects of mustard on white blood cells caught the attention of Colonel Cornelius P. Rhoads--a pioneering physician and research scientist as brilliant as he was arrogant and self-destructive--who recognized that the poison was both a killer and a cure, and ushered in a new era of cancer research led by the Sloan Kettering Institute. Meanwhile, the Bari incident remained cloaked in military secrecy, resulting in lost records, misinformation, and considerable confusion about how a deadly chemical weapon came to be tamed for medical use.

Deeply researched and beautifully written, The Great Secret is the remarkable story of how horrific tragedy gave birth to medical triumph.

Product Details

$27.95  $25.71
W. W. Norton & Company
Publish Date
September 08, 2020
6.3 X 9.2 X 1.4 inches | 1.4 pounds

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About the Author

Jennet Conant is the New York Times best-selling author of several books, including Tuxedo Park, 109 East Palace, The Irregulars, and the critically acclaimed Man of the Hour. She lives in Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband, son, and two golden retrievers.


In a history that reads like a novel, Conant connects the 1943 bombing by the Nazis of an American ship containing banned mustard gas to the development of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment.--An Editors' Choice of the New York Times Book Review
[A] compelling narrative.... fascinating.--Laura Landro
Engrossing.... Convey[s] a fast-paced medical detective story that demonstrates how careful scientific observation can yield unexpected benefits and serves as a reminder of the difficult choices made by governments to balance public health and secrecy in matters of security.--Peter Reczek
With a keen understanding of medical science, cancer, and the history of World War II, as well as an amazing range of sources, Conant dramatically illuminates a dark moment in history that eventually led to the medical breakthrough of chemotherapy.
Few writers are better at finding new paths through the well-worn territory of World War II than historian Jennet Conant.... Conant delights in the devilish details, the hidden, overlooked, and deeply personal stories that constitute our collective historical record. In her deft and experienced hands, readers will discover great delight as well.--Jessica Lahey
The Great Secret is a ripping good yarn, jam-packed with marvelous prose, wonderful historical characters, and superb research on a little-known but critical chapter in the history of medicine and the Second World War. I could not put this book down until I reached the final page.--Howard Markel, MD, PhD, director of the Center for the History of Medicine, University of Michigan