To the Editors:
Tim Flannery’s review [NYR, July 19] of John Emsley’s The 13th Element mentions that in World War II the Germans refrained from using tabun nerve gas because they “needlessly” feared retaliation by the Allies with similar compounds.
Their fear was not entirely unfounded, for they had surmised, from the suspicious silence in English-language chemistry journals, that there must have been a ban on publication of research on compounds similar to tabun, alkyl-phosphofluorides, indicating that the Allies must also have discovered these extremely toxic substances. This was in fact so.
Dr. Bernard Saunders of Cambridge University, whose brave self-exposing tests Flannery mentions, had independently discovered these potent poisons. In 1937 as a medical student I enjoyed an excellent class he taught in basic organic chemistry. He did not discuss his research with us then, but about 1946 it was published, and discussed in The Lancet and probably many other medical journals. These nerve gases are strong anti-cholinesterases, that is, they inhibit the enzyme which normally destroys excess acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter between neurons and muscle cells, resulting in spasm of muscle cells all over the body, in muscles, stomach, gut, bronchi, heart, arteries, etc.
In 1948 I chanced to meet Dr. Saunders briefly. He confirmed that his compound was the weapon chosen by the Allies. He said it has a faint smell, whereas tabun is odorless. He must have learned this from his brave self-exposure tests. He left me with the impression that the Allies were ready to use it should need arise. Perhaps I am mistaken. The Allies may have decided to rely on their superior bombing power sufficing as disincentive, seeing bulk synthesis of nerve gas as difficult to achieve safely.
I had one other contact with this gloomy subject. In 1945, immediately after the war in Europe, the infantry unit for which I was medical officer was guarding a “V3” factory, essentially a V2 with a tabun warhead. Presumably, V3 rockets were the means whereby Hitler planned to douse England with tabun. General Rommel had bravely expressed his disgust with this project.
Vancouver, British Columbia
November 1, 2001