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Short Reviews

Polywater

by Felix Franks
MIT Press, 208 pp., $15.00

Wounded Men, Broken Promises: How the Veterans Administration Betrays Yesterday’s Heroes

by Robert Klein
Macmillan, 278 pp., $13.95

Who remembers “polywater”? About a decade ago the idea that water could exist in nature in an exceptionally stable and viscous form, with a much higher boiling point and lower freezing point than ordinary water, was the talk of several continents. Perhaps this was the “bound” water in living cells. In any case the military and industrial establishment began to ponder applications. All came to nought, however, when it turned out that polywater was an artifact—droplets contaminated with impurities from the container or processing method. Felix Franks, an acknowledged expert on the physics and chemistry of water, here examines the rise and fall of polywater as a cautionary tale of how science is done. (He himself was never involved in polywater research.)

The story gets under way with reports of “modified” water by a Russian group headed by Boris Deryagin. British scientists—among them J.D. Bernal—get excited; and the momentum picks up as a scientist in the US Office of Naval Research begins investigations. A snowballing effect is all but guaranteed when a distinguished spectroscopist reports findings on polywater in Science. Money is suddenly found to pay for research, and the lay press duly pounces on polywater’s potential. Franks very capably reports the swelling melodrama and the denouement: the doubters’ camp built up, some early believers recanted, and soon it was evident that silica or other contaminants were the culprits responsible for polywater’s charms; even the Russians backed down.

Franks considers events in the light of the late Sixties when science was riding high, but also when the very idea that the Russians were on to something could spark instant action. Unfortunately, he tends to lay excessive blame on the lay press (and the scientists who talked to reporters), forgetting that it was the scientists’ own dreams of glory that led to the babble. While some reputations suffered, and the events are yet another revelation of the fierce competition and ego-striving that motivate some scientists, the affair ended relatively quickly, without outrageous outlays of funds. It wasn’t as bad as Franks makes out—but he also makes of it an intriguing, unusual book.

Robert Klein’s book examines how the Veterans Administration treats, and mistreats, their ill, with special attention to veterans of the Vietnam War. Klein himself is not a veteran (he was, in fact, an antiwar demonstrator), but as a psychologist-in-training he had some dealings with the system. He conducted interviews which, along with his other data, will deal some further blows to the rapidly sinking images of physicians and government. He shows, for example, that between 1974 and 1980 Vietnam vets generally have been dying at twice the rate of death in actual combat.

What emerges from the interviews is the astonishing lack of support from the VA. Young physicians tend to be unsympathetic or even abusive toward Vietnam vets because of differences in background and experience. Most VA hospitals are affiliated with medical schools; this may be desirable in theory, but results in a lack of supervision and in putting the needs of medical students over the needs of patients. Klein found that a great deal of medical research was going on in the veterans’ hospitals. But the ethical norms regulating informed consent from those who participated were not scrupulously followed.

One large, logical field for research—care of the elderly—has not in fact received much attention. The system’s care for elderly veterans, indeed, may be no better than that familiar to us through exposes of private nursing homes. Especially disturbing is Klein’s report on possible victims of Agent Orange: rather than notifying vets of the symptoms, and offering treatment, the VA was close-mouthed about the problem, and unable or unwilling to help those who think they or their children may be affected. The recent legislation requiring the government to give treatment to veterans suffering from its effects clearly should have been passed years ago. In general, Klein has supported his findings well, but the stories told by the veterans themselves give the strongest evidence of the shame of the VA system.

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