Fertiliser, Mustard Gas, Chemotherapy and the refusal of ideas to die

Sometimes these blogs have a simple, self-contained and well-worn message such as why having a healthy cash balance is a good thing. Sometimes it’s about the subtleties needed to run an agency. The magic and logic of running a creative agency I believe it’s called.

Occasionally it’s an unashamed advert to sell my services.

Sometimes though it’s just a place to write about ideas that interest me. Snapshots of history or science that give me pause to think and wonder at the genius or the weirdness of life.

One such moment came recently when I read the amazing story of Fritz Haber and how his work touched all of our lives long after he died. It showed how science and morality can be uncomfortable partners. It also showed how ideas refuse to die and can pop up years later in strange and unexpected ways.

I’ll keep to the bare bones of Fritz Haber’s story although it is a fascinating life and worth reading about in it’s own right. A German Nobel prize winning chemist in the late 19th century his work on nitrogen led to the development of modern fertilisers without which the population boom of the following 100 odd years could not have been fed. His work literally saved millions if not billions of lives.

The story takes a darker turn during the First World War when his research focus changed and he developed ever more deadly forms of mustard gas which killed and maimed horribly tens of thousands.

The rest of his story is bleakly fascinating and apart from driving his wife and son to suicide included trying to pay German war debts by synthesising gold from sea water as well as developing another fertiliser that later, in another warped twist of fate, was to become the poison that killed millions in the holocaust.

This is more than enough impact for any one man to have on his own and future generations. Millions fed who otherwise would have starved and millions killed on the battlefields and concentration camps of Europe. It’s an understatement to say he had a chequered life.

However there is a twist in this story that only appeared decades later in a way that flipped the negative affect of the mustard gas on the human body in a way that will most likely affect you or a loved one sometime during your life.

Mustard gas, if it didn’t kill you straight away, had very bad long term health consequences. One of which was that it killed your immune system leading to anaemia and the need for blood transfusions. Although this was studied in the post war years it was pretty much forgotten for the next 20 odd years.

However ideas don’t die quickly and many years later in the second world war the effect of mustard gas on the immune system became a hot topic politically and scientifically after the bombing of the John Harvey when carrying 70 tons of mustard gas in Bari harbour, killing hundreds of sailors and local fishermen.

This nexus of events, war and science threw up one unexpected research development into the effects of mustard gas threw up one possibility; if nitrogen mustard could kill white cells could it also kill cancer cells? Used to treat lymphomas nitrogen mustard in the form of mustine was the first ever chemotherapy. The history of oncology since then has seen the development of more and more potent cytotoxins in more and more permutations in order to find the perfect cocktail of drugs.

Chemistry developed fertilisers which saved millions which then gave rise to terrible chemical weapons which killed millions and then these poisons were used as drugs to help save some cancer patients. Better minds than mine can sort out the balance between good and evil in the use of the gas that makes up 78% of the atmosphere and 3% of the human body.

Compared to the moral complexity of the above agency finances are refreshingly simple. Matching the right resource to revenue, controlling costs and generating cash remain unequivocally good things. If you would like some help making your basics better contact me on simon@novemberfriday.wpengine.com. I can’t promise not to ramble on about the latest Fritz Haber type story. Just nod a little and I’ll move on.