Cover Image: The Great Secret

The Great Secret

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

How a classified disaster in the 2nd World War, lead discovery, and beginning of the Chemotherapy War on Cancer.  Is a strong premise of a book. It piqued my interest immediately. 

I was interested to read about the highly secretive and controversial development of Chemical weapons during the war. How did it all come about, and what actually happened in secret.   The standard history texts tell us Chemical Weapons were not used at all during the War. They were not involved. Wrong. Completely fascinating to read the actual plans and attitudes of the Allies.  Great background to the subject to come.

The bombing of Bari, lead to an unprecedented release of Chemical agent. Hundreds affected by mysterious symptoms. Had it came from the Nazi's as part of a massive escalation? What agent was used, as it didn't match the effects of know agents? A Chemical Weapons expert is sent to investigate. A detailed account of Stuart Alexander's carrier and background is given and then the book follows his investigation and battle to discover the truth to allow correct treatment of the victims. Almost of the start, the veil of secrecy prevented potential life-saving information from being shared with medics. Only Stuart's determination lead to the truth being discovered.

Alexander noted some unusual effects of the agent, that he believed could be used to treated cancers. His documentation and attention to detail meant that something positive could come out of this waste of human life. His determination to share the information ensured that it did not ultimately remain classified. 

The book then details the being of the war on cancer, via the use of Chemotherapy. It covers the early experiments based on Alexander's results When Chemotherpaty was not mainstream medicine to its inclusion in Oncology and Modern medicine. 

The book works on so many levels. It is fascinating from page one to the very last page. It remains very readable and provides important background details, enough to take you on a real journey.  It brings the subject matter to life. A factual book that is a page-turner, and something that is so accessible. This book needs to be read. One of the best factual book this year and for many years. A full five stars.

I was provided with an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
Was this review helpful?
I really struggled to "get in to" and complete this book. This is not the authors fault, but I think down to my attention span. I know readers who will really enjoy this and discussed it with one friend in particular. I think its a really interesting story and a fascinating history.
Was this review helpful?
I came into this having read the blurb thinking it would be straight on with the ideas behind the history and chemistry of Chemotherapy from the opening. I'd picked it as I had been a big fan of the Emperor Of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which gave a solid chunk to the development of chemotherapy, but as part of a broader conversation. However its about halfway into the book before chemotherapy is really discussed, beyond a few sidebars of the effects of mustard gas, because the first half of this book is military history. Military history  with medical detection, namely after the Battle Of Bari in World War II, a large number of sioldiers succumb to similar deadly symptoms and die. Dr Stewart Alexander, a doctor in the Chemical Weapons development part of the army is sent to investigate. What he discovers latterly becomes the basis of chemotherapy, The Great Secret is partially about giving this doctor his due in discovering it after his work was classified.

To get there Conant has to explain the Allies position on chemical and biological weapons, the theatre of war in Italy, the relationships between the allies and secrecy between them not to mention the fractious and petty behaviour of other officers when they haven't been let in on the secret (woe betide you travel on a ship with sealed orders). Add to this an in depth (hagiographic perhaps) view of Dr Alexander and his future wife Bunny Wilbur - a formidable Army Nurse who on this showing deserves a biography of her own. The medical mystery is presented in fine detail, and the solution and outcome (basically Alexander and loads of victims are fucked over by Churchill) a little depressing. But by the time you have breathlessly gotten through that you finally get on to chemotherapy. 

When you get to chemo, the book oddly loses a little focus. There is a lot to talk about, and a lot of it chemical, and a lot of it is unsuccessful. Indeed the book itself is pretty neutral on the cost benefit of chemo in a lot of places, I wonder whether its chemical weapon origin lingers strongly - not hard when you read symptoms earlier on. Conant's real hero is Alexander, not chemo, and the character who takes over the baton in the second half of the book is a lot more complex ("Dusty" Rhodes - director of the research programme who also has a pretty unacceptable flirt with racism in his career which the book deals with extremely openly and well).

What is left is one of those idiosyncratic non-fiction pieces which take their own time, and route to tell one story, by telling two or three absolutely fascinating other ones. And is willing to look cold eyed at chemical weapons, social injustice and the scientific method with enough judgement to make you feel that anyone involved would have to say they had been treated fairly. A really pleasant surprise.

(Review as a Netgalley ARC)
Was this review helpful?