Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The wartime chemist

My great-grandfather was a four-star general. During the First World War, he was a commander in the trenches near Flanders when the first chlorine-gas impregnated shells fell from German skies, giving birth to a new era of wartime trauma. He was a chemist, trained at West Point in the arts of war and molecular theory, and led American men into Belgium when his country sounded the call to arms. When the green gas fell and bubbled and boiled over the earth towards his post, he somehow comprehended the new evil seeping towards him, perhaps from the familiar scent so frequently unleashed from lab benches of the time. He realized that his life depended upon keeping the cloudy beast out of his lungs. Urinating into a kerchief and covering his mouth and nostrils, he ran through the trenches shouting for his men to do the same. Water and urea binding the chlorine—the fabric bore the blow meant for his chest. As he plunged headlong through the sickly fog, others took up the call and passed the word to all within reach. Even when an errant shell exploded near my great-grandfather and a fragment of its casing slid smoothly under his skull, his words echoed throughout the battlefield, counteracting the choking death conceived in the factories of the Kaiser’s machine.

My great-grandfather might have died on the ground in that cloud had not one of his men found him and carried him from the stench. He regained consciousness in a field hospital in France, where he spent the rest of the war. Neurosurgical techniques of the time left the shrapnel nestled close to his brain, an unwelcome guest nuzzling coldly into his thoughts. Along with his medals and awards, he hung the dull marks of the lifetime service man on his dress jacket: emphysema, a limp, night terrors, and a yearning for the forgetfulness that alcohol or solitude could only sometimes find.

I never met my great-grandfather. His lifeline was shortened by the steel leech worming into his core, yet sometimes I imagine him, drooping mustache gaining anthropomorphic grace as he laughs out a Scottish belt. His photographs are all handsome, composed, and crushingly sad, their monochromatic shine yellowing as my life’s cadence plays on. My mother loved him fiercely, and he loved it when she would hold his hand in the evening, telling him stories and listening to his wisdom, his sherry glass balanced effortlessly on the arm of a chair that still smells like his drink. I imagine that as he drifted into sleep with my mother sitting in his lap, he liked the comfort of knowing that she was there—another human between him and the pungent creeping horrors of his past. Sometimes, when she is in pain, I find her sitting in that chair, breathing slowly with her eyes closed and her hand wrapped softly around its worn arm. His humility, honor, and humanism live on in this way, shattering the barriers of death and time that kept him from me. I see their echoes and proudly wear his name.



WILLIAM S. TIERNEY is a first-year medical student in Cleveland, Ohio. A California native explanted into the Great Lakes region to pursue anatomic and medical sciences, he has recently begun developing a passion for narrative medicine and humanistic medical works. When not buried in textbooks and research, he takes an active stance in healthcare politics and spends time with his beloved wife, who is also pursuing a career in medicine. Of course, special thanks for this work goes to his great-grandfather and grandfather, both of whom served in foreign wars and inspire him with their bravery and humility to this day.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 3
Summer 2012  |  Sections  |  War & Veterans

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