As intriguing as all this might sound, the telling is hobbled in several fundamental ways. Rather than employ her material to illuminate or support her narrative, Conant has a habit of allowing that material to dictate it. A chief example early on is Alexander’s unpublished autobiography, cited at least 25 times in the first chapter alone. Thus, after a quick and vivid description of the Bari attack, and an economical rendering of the doctor’s early years, readers are given an extended tour of Alexander’s prior wartime assignments and transfers, complete with the names and titles of his various colleagues and commanding officers, joined to his thoughts on everything from his attendance at the January 1943 Casablanca conference (“a thrill”) to his impressions (“lasting”) upon first meeting Dwight D. Eisenhower, when what most readers will want is to get back to the hellscape of Bari.
Unfortunately, this return is marked by an overreliance on a new set of reference materials. Drawing from Alexander’s preliminary reports as he sets about his Bari investigations, Conant tells us countless times that Alexander suspects mustard gas to be the unknown killer long after we have already intuited this. Pulled from other documents is a litany of medical terms that are poorly defined and may leave lay readers at sea. Terms such as “conjunctivital” and “hyperemia” had me reaching for a dictionary, while instinct alone told me “gross edema and vesiculation of the penis” is a condition best avoided.
Of course, much of this profusion of ancillary detail could be excused, even justified, if the life of Stewart Alexander and his pioneering work on cancer were the book’s through-line. It is not. Instead, at war’s end, Alexander turns down an offer to join a cancer research institute in favor of returning to his family medical practice in New Jersey. As a result, the last third of “The Great Secret” is then handed off to a wholly different character, Col. Cornelius “Dusty” Rhoads, the head of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service and the future director of the Sloan Kettering Institute. So thoroughly does Alexander fall away that, for nearly 100 pages, he merits just a few passing references. Most dispiriting of all, when we do finally hear from Alexander again in the epilogue we discover that his work in Italy was hardly the life-shaping event we might have imagined; for more than 30 years, Conant writes, “he had not given the Bari episode so much as a second thought.”
If startling, this admission raises the possibility that Alexander understood something about his Bari adventure that Conant does not: that despite the extraordinary circumstances in which it occurred, his contribution to the field of cancer research was quite limited. By then we’ve learned that neither the Bari disaster nor the tissue samples Alexander collected pioneered the study of nitrogen mustard in chemotherapy; medical researchers were already experimenting with the compound. In a remarkable turn, Conant also blames “the widespread misapprehension” that the disaster “preceded the first clinical trial” of nitrogen mustard on a badly worded 1946 newspaper article, while noting that this “confusion continues to the present day.” That confusion seems likely to persist given her book’s subtitle: “The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer.”
In much of her work, Conant has traveled that fascinating and murky landscape where science, medicine and war intersect. While “The Great Secret” also resides on this terrain, readers are apt to find more reward in her previous books.