Conant’s war: Inside the Mouse-Trap

Posted January 17th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

I’ve started teaching my “Science and the Cold War” course again, this time in the History Department at Georgetown University.1 The course starts with World War I and goes all the way through the early 1990s — quite a whirlwind tour of how science, technology, and the state got to be so seriously intermingled. On Tuesday I gave a lecture that forced me to go over some material I hadn’t thought about for awhile: what James B. Conant did during the war. No, not the war you’re probably thinking about.

James B. Conant (fourth from left) at a meeting with Uranium Committee principles, March 1940. Left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur C. Compton, Vannevar Bush, Conant, Karl Compton, Alfred L. Loomis.

James B. Conant (fourth from left) at a meeting with Uranium Committee principles, March 1940. Left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur C. Compton, Vannevar Bush, Conant, Karl Compton, Alfred L. Loomis.

James B. Conant’s wartime work is usually thought of as being part of the Second World War, but what I’m interested here is what he did during the First. During World War II, Conant was part of the scientist-administrator cabal that launched the National Defense Research Committee, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and the Manhattan Project. He was Vannevar Bush’s right hand man, an interested, similarly-thinking scientist who tried to take the long view of things. And as President of Harvard since 1933, he commanded a lot of academic clout. He was at the Trinity test. He and Bush bent Roosevelt’s ear about making the bomb, and later trying to control it.

But Conant’s work during World War I is in some ways even more interesting, especially in that it gives an eerie prelude of things to come. I only learned about it while preparing for this class the first time around, reading James G. Hershberg’s authoritative biography, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (Knopf, 1993). Everything I know about Conant comes from Hershberg; if you’re interested in more, check out the book.

Conant longed to be a Harvard man. He got his B.A. there in 1914, and his Ph.D. in 1917, both in chemistry. He longed to stay. (He ended up marrying the daughter of one of the more senior professors there, potentially for careerist reasons, Hershberg hints.) But unlike many in the Yard, when war broke out in Europe, he tried to stay neutral — he brooked no anti-German sentiment, even though reports of German “atrocities” in Belgium, even after the use of chemical gas at Ypres in 1915, even after the Lusitania. Harvard itself became very politicized, mostly against the Germans.

Revenge of the Nerds: James Conant, 1921. That's right — four years after World War I ended, he still looked like an alter boy. Source: Harvard University Archives.

Revenge of the Nerds: James Conant, 1921. Don’t let the “innocent geek” look fool you — the guy could cook up some nasty brews. Source: Harvard University Archives.

What Conant did realize, though, was that there might be money to be made. With the war came shortages of organic chemicals. With shortages came the possibility of profiteering for a chemist like Conant. So Conant and two of his college friends tried to create their own little “start-up” to manufacture several key, in-demand chemicals. They bought a “shack” in Queens, and set it up to produce benzoic acid (a food preservative). It promptly burned down. Undeterred, they rented at a new location in Newark — an abandoned slaughterhouse.

Conant then received a sudden offer to teach back at Harvard. Conant promptly raced back to Cambridge — this was what he really wanted more than anything else. His company in Newark (“Aromatic Chemical”) got set up without him. And on the first production day, in November 1916… the building exploded. Which killed one Conant’s college buddies and two of the staff they had hired. (The other college buddy was merely “blown off of a ladder” and had his face and eyes scorched by corrosive chemicals, leading to only temporary blindness.)


Poor Stan Pennock — “WAS REALLY GREAT PLAYER,” but was not so great chemist. Boston Daily Globe, November 29, 1916.

The 23-year-old Conant felt terrible. He blamed himself for not helping set up the plant better. Conant the social-climber managed to have his name kept out of newspaper accounts, but his dabbling in war profiteering was over. At the same time, his dabbling in war was now beginning.

By 1917, Conant’s initial skepticism of the war had faded. Unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmerman telegram revelation, and no doubt the fact that US entry seemed unavoidable seems to have swayed his feelings. In late March 1917 he looked for a foot-hold into the war, even though he thought of himself as a pacifist. (His one major regret at the time was that it was threatening to derail his perfect Harvard career, right when he got his foot in the door.) He ended up doing something he knew well — making chemicals. Nasty chemicals.

Fritz Haber at Ypres, 1915. (Haber is the one pointing.)

Fritz Haber at Ypres, 1915. Haber is the one pointing; chlorine gas vials sit before him.

Chlorine gas had been used first by the Germans at Ypres in 1915. Fritz Haber, one of the great chemists of the 20th-century, personally oversaw the first use. It killed a lot of Frenchmen, but didn’t get the Germans any ground, since the German troops were not exactly eager to march into trenches where gas still lingered. Still, the propaganda effect was huge — and the outcry even huger. The French and the British went from protesting the German use to developing gas masks and their own offensive chemicals. The number of agents rapidly grew, from chlorine to phosgene, from that to mustard gas. The gas didn’t end up giving anyone a major tactical advantage, though — it just became another way to make war hell.

The US was late to the chemical game, just as it was late to the war. Even though gas warfare had become a major component of the war after 1915, the US government made only feeble efforts to reach out to chemists on the issue. By the time they entered the war in 1917, they still had no gas masks, no offensive gases of their own, and no training of troops in gas procedures. They sent out an emergency plea to chemists, and to the American Chemical Society, to get them up to speed.

Mustard gas, the most noxious of the German gases, is what pushed Conant towards chemical warfare more than anything else. He talked to a colleague at MIT who set him up at American University, in Washington, DC, as a group leader for the sprawling American chemical weapons effort. At American University, there were some 60 campus buildings dedicated to chemical weapons issues, employing some 1,700 chemists, testing some 1,600 compounds on animals. In September 1917, Conant became the head of Organic Research Unit #1. His job was to make the US capable of mustard gas production — within a year it was producing 30 tons a day. Conant was hardly alone in this — it seems that practically the entire Harvard chemistry department got involved in this effort. Conant himself received a lieutenant’s commission for the job, though he later remarked that: “We were not soldiers. We were chemists dressed as officers.”

British football/soccer team in gas masks, 1916.

British football/soccer team in gas masks, 1916.

Conant drove his team hard, and was noticed for it. He moved from mustard gas to a new assignment — a nasty chemical called Lewisite, an arsenic-based compound that was advertised by Harper’s Monthly as some 72X more deadly than any other gas developed during the war (modern classifications seem to put it at only 3X more deadly than mustard gas2), but unlike mustard gas it was very acute in its effects and dissipated quickly, allowing it to be considered for offensive maneuvers.

An article in Harper’s Monthly from 19193 has one of the more florid descriptions of Lewisite that I’ve come across:

Lewisite is described as “an oily liquid of an amber color and the odor of geranium blossoms.” It is highly explosive, and on contact with water it bursts into flame. Let loose in the open air, it diffuses into a gas which kills instantly on the inhalation of the smallest amount that can by any means be measured. A single drop of the liquid on the hand causes death in a few hours, the victim dying in fearful agony. The pain on contact is acute and almost unendurable. It acts by penetrating through the skin or, in the gaseous form, through the lung tissue, poisoning the blood, affecting in turn the kidneys, the lung tissue, and the heart.

Lewisite identification poster from World War II.

Lewisite identification poster from World War II. Are geraniums one of those common smells that everyone knows?

The plant to make Lewisite was located in Willoughby, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. It was apparently referred to the people who worked there as “the mouse-trap.” Harper’s explained the name:

Men who went in never came out until the war was over; each of the eight hundred workers signed an agreement of voluntary imprisonment before going to work. They could write letters, but could give no address but that of a locked box in the Cleveland post-office… The hours were long, the work hard, the risk tremendous. But in spite of the frightfully poisonous nature of the stuff they were making, not a man was poisoned; the only death in the plant was from influenza. To protect the men while at work there was devised a mask and overall suit that rendered them absolutely immune. Masks that gave full protection against the most powerful German gases were useless against Lewisite.

Conant at Mouse-Trap, 1918. Source: Daily Boston Globe, May 27, 1933.

Conant at Mouse-Trap, 1918. Source: Daily Boston Globe, May 27, 1933.

Conant’s group at American University helped devise the process by which Lewisite would be manufactured. He was promoted to major and sent to Cleveland to supervise the production of the gas, officially code-named G-34, at the “Mouse-Trap” facility. The facility practiced strict compartmentalization. Conant was one of the few who knew the whole story of what they were making, and he was the top technical man at the plant. He worked around the clock and gained a reputation for easy leadership — a must for people working under those conditions. He wanted to make Lewisite because he hoped it would be “the great American gas which would win the war.

The facility was a commandeered automobile factory, and was under strict guard. Conant’s only address was Lock Drawer 426, Cleveland. I don’t know if it was really a “voluntary imprisonment” situation — that sounds possibly exaggerated, though perhaps not — but it was high security. By the end of the war the plant was producing 10 tons of Lewisite a day, ready to be shipped to Europe to be packed into artillery shells. Harper’s claimed that “half a dozen 300-pound bombs of Lewisite, exploded windward of the city of Berlin, would have killed the entire population of the German capital.” Furthermore, they reported that the preferred method for this kind of delivery was via an “automatic airplane” — a drone.

But Lewisite was never used in battle. The war ended too soon. The US stockpile of Lewisite, save for a few small samples kept for future research, was loaded onto a boat in barrels at Baltimore, taken 50 miles offshore, and sunk into the deep.

Time Magazine - James Conant

It’s hard to not see so many interesting parallels here with the atomic bomb. The eventual call of the scientists to war. The race towards a new weapon that will “win the war” — no matter how destructive. The transformation of university campuses into laboratories for weapons of mass destruction. The creation of new, top-secret facilities where compartmentalization, isolation, and secrecy rule the day. And the fact that it’s Conant resonates too. Conant was one of the earliest scientists in the uranium work to call for compartmentalization, one of the first to call for creating an isolated laboratory (Los Alamos). It’s hard not to see Conant’s lessons of World War I affecting his approach to the bomb situation in World War II. It wasn’t his first rodeo.

In 1927, Conant took his first trip to Germany. He held no ill-will towards the Germans for the First World War. While there, he met none other than Fritz Haber, who was then 60 years old. No one knows exactly what the talked about, but apparently it included both politics and, well, oxidation. Conant’s only note on Haber was that “he paid me the greatest compliment an older man can pay a younger; he listened when I spoke.”

Haber’s story ended up much more sadly than Conant’s. Haber died while being exiled from his country, a hero turned into a martyr by a government that could not tolerate the fact that he had been born a Jew. Conant went on to be President of Harvard for 20 years, to help reform the American academy, to help make the atomic bomb, and, much later, to be the US Ambassador to West Germany. It’s fascinating that these two chemical weapons pioneers — one of whom became a nuclear weapon pioneer — managed to intersect, if only briefly.

James Conant, President of Harvard, 1933. Source: Harvard University Archives.

James Conant, President of Harvard, 1933. Source: Harvard University Archives.

Conant apparently had no moral scruples with working on toxic gas. Which perhaps isn’t that surprising. The Germans used it first, after all, and it had quickly become “the norm” in the First World War. His most toxic work, in any case, was never used against anybody. The fact that his “government work” came after a shameful failure probably made it feel redeeming, as well. More generally, he wrote in the late-1960s that:

I did not see in 1917, and I do not see in 1968, why tearing a man’s guts out by a high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs or his skin. All war is immoral. Logically, the 100 percent pacifist has the only impregnable position. Once that is abandoned, as it is when a nation becomes a belligerent, one can talk sensibly only in terms of the violation of agreements about the way war is conducted, or the consequences of a certain tactic or weapon.

It’s a legitimate stance, and one taken by a lot of scientists who have worked on WMDs. But it seems like kind of a cop-out to me. There are better and worse ways to wage war. Both ethically, from the point of view of who gets killed and how they get killed, but also from the standpoint of achieving practical ends that you can live with in the peacetime. If one declares that the only options are pacifism or “anything goes,” one slides down a pretty nasty slope awfully quickly. One gets what Conant is trying to indicate — that war itself is the problem, not the means — but saying that the means are just details of immorality seems to be just a bit too dismissive for me. Nations that decide that the methods of war are just practical details become the stuff of nightmares.

  1. It is not a permanent gig, before anyone congratulates me on landing a new job! Just a temporary thing. []
  2. See, e.g., the LD50 doses for Sulfur Mustard (mustard gas) and Lewisite. []
  3. Frank Parker Stockbridge, “War Inventions That Came Too Late,” Harper’s Monthly (November 1919), 828-835. []

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14 Responses to “Conant’s war: Inside the Mouse-Trap”

  1. Peter says:

    I’m sort of skeptical that the Lewisite workers were kept in a form of voluntary imprisonment. An arrangement of that sort worked for the Manhattan Project because Los Alamos was a city, with all the services and amenities that an ordinary city would have. Keeping a large workforce confined in a factory building sounds a lot less practical.

    • It’s one of the bits about Mouse-Trap that is repeated in every account of it, but the repetition seems rote. I agree, it seems unlikely, a potential exaggeration — the living arrangements for 500-800 workers would be substantial in and of itself.

  2. Sean says:

    Lewisite had first been formulated by Julius Nieuwland, then a graduate student (and priest) at CUA (across town from American Univ). His thesis advisor let Lewis know of its existence. The work had been done in Mahoney Hall, the Chem building on campus, where I had the dubious pleasure of taking classes in the 70s. Don’t know if it is still there or not. I’ve also heard that AU is still finding middens of explosives and toxic gasses left over from WWI.

    • Bill Higgins says:

      Father Nieuwland is a local hero on the Notre Dame campus, because his polymerization of acetylene was a big step on the road to synthetic rubber; DuPont licensed his discovery, and created neoprene. So if you’re using a mouse pad,* thank a priest.

      He turns up as a character in Knute Rockne, All American– the film in which Ronald Reagan played The Gipper– because he was a mentor to Rockne, a chemistry instructor turned football coach. Nieuwland was played by Albert Bassermann, an actor who, oddly, had once worked as a chemist.

      I sometimes wish my alma mater were better known for its research than for its football team, but it’s nice that, at least, this classic cornball movie features a nod to science in its laboratory scenes.

      The best story I know about Father Nieuwland: When collecting botanical specimens on hikes through Indiana, if he wanted a specimen from a high branch out of reach, he would draw his Colt .25 and shoot the leaf off the tree. His botanizing pistol is in Notre Dame’s archives.

      * Or a wet suit. Or wearing a wet suit while using your mouse pad.

  3. Bradley LAING says:

    —Years ago, before the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists necause web-only, they ran an issue about a chemical dump on land, made during WW I, which included a photo of a steel knight’s helmet (faceplate) with mention of Lewisite experiments. I am not sure that meant that Lewisite was actually buried under the later Washington DC area suburb built on top of the chemical dump.

  4. Bradley LAING says:

    —This seems to be the place I remember from the article.

    —The NYT article says Lewisite was tested her, but not that it was dumped here.

  5. Marc says:

    Agony is agony whether inflicted by mechanical trauma, thermal heat, poisonous chemicals, or radiation. Is death by Lewisite is more painful than burning to death? Death by mechanical trauma and thermal heat in warfare has a very long history. It has precedence. This alone makes it “ethical”. Death by chemicals or radiation is repugnant only because of it’s relative novelty. That we are repulsed only by novel ways of suffering is a good thing…I think. It’s a start I suppose.

  6. Will Thomas says:

    Thanks for this post, Alex. Hershberg’s tome is on my shelf, but I’ve never read it through carefully. The part about Conant’s experience with lab accidents reminded me of a story in George Cowan’s autobiography, which I was asked to review a few years ago. The book isn’t very revealing on the whole, but it does have some interesting nuggets, including insights into a lot of the less known aspects of atomic bomb work. This from the Met Lab:

    “Mark [Goldsmith's] work involved extraction of uranyl nitrate into ethyl ether. He recovered the ether on a distillation column, unaware that unstable ether peroxides were building up in his solvent. The column was busily bubbling one afternoon when it exploded with a thundering blast. I unglued myself from a desk seat and tried to pull open the door leading to an outside corridor. It was tilted out and jammed. Framed in the door window on the corridor was a famous face… It was James Bryant Conant of Harvard, who was visiting the lab and had been about to come in and talk with me. He was tugging on the door from the other side.”

    In this case, “Damage was limited to minor burns.”

  7. Tom says:

    One can draw a line between weapons based on how long they act for. A bullet is only dangerous for the few seconds that it is in flight, a chemical weapon can be dangerous for a long period of time. Likewise nuclear weapons have consequences outside of the crater they create.

  8. Stan norris says:


    The residents of Spring Valley, a neighborhood in upper Northwest near American University, are still living with the consequences of Conant and his colleagues handiwork.

    Stan Norris
    former resident of Spring valley

  9. Maciej Z says:

    I’ve been following your blog for a while (NUKEMAP brought me here) and I think it is one of the most interesting blogs dealing with WMD. I have never commented your entries before, but one sentence made me do it this time: you wrote that almost whole supply of Lewisite was dumped in the ocean.
    You are probably aware of that, but I would like to mention that the Baltic Sea is one of the greatest deposits of chemical weaponry, after WWII not only Germans and Soviets but also UK and the USA dumped their unused stockpile in Baltic. The problem is that the containers were not designed to withstand the influence of sea water, so they pose a great danger. Almost every year after the storm season there are remains of poisonous substances on the beaches and fishermen retrieve the damaged and dangerous containers while fishing and sometimes people get badly hurt.

    The sad thing is that nothing (or almost nothing) is done to diffuse this chemical time bomb… Why would people think that dumping extremly poisonous chemical agents in the sea or ocean is the right way to get rid of them? I live in Gdańsk, on Polish shore of the sea and I dread to think what will happen with Baltic in the future…

  10. Dave Fernig says:

    Fascinating post. As for dumping stuff, yes, we have a legacy of war all over the world. In the fair fields of flanders, around 70-90 tons of ordinance surface very year, dumped on the edges of fields by farmers to be picked up and dealt with. I guess the farmers take the risk – if they don’t plough in time, they don’t sow, etc. In SE Asia where more ordinance was dropped than in the entire Second World War, there is thought to be no chance it will be cleaned up. Just too much. As for the stuff under water, it was politically convenient, expedient and completely stupid.

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