As the world awaits a Covid-19 vaccine, a new book sheds light on the New Jersey doctor behind one of the 20th century’s most important medical breakthroughs.
“The right man, in the right place at the right time can change medical history,” says author Jennet Conant.
In this instance, that man was Dr. Stewart Alexander. Conant tells his story in The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer (W.W. Norton).
Alexander grew up in the Bergen County town of Park Ridge, the son of a doctor who also served as the town’s mayor. Trained in chemical warfare, Alexander, a lieutenant colonel, was dispatched to Bari, Italy, after a 1943 air raid left Allied soldiers with mysterious ailments that he would trace to mustard gas secretly stored on an American ship.
The government classified Alexander’s findings, but his observations that the chemical warfare agent had suppressed white blood cell counts eventually led to “the breakthrough idea that its toxic effects might be harnessed,” says Conant, who refers to Alexander as “the father of chemotherapy.”
Alexander returned to Park Ridge, raised two daughters with his wife, Bunny, and served as director of Bergen Pines County Hospital.
But an Army officer brought Alexander’s findings to General Motors executives Alfred P. Sloan Jr. and Charles Kettering, who were inspired to fund a new front in the battle against cancer. The Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research was born.
Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley was among those who lobbied the Army to officially commend Alexander, which it finally did in 1988, three years before his death.