Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source

Article excerpt

A Nose for Poison Gas Saved Lives

On the battlefield, evaluating evidence can be a matter of life or death.

World War I (1914-1918) was fought during an era of tremendous technological innovation, including such new weapons as long-distance howitzers, combat aircraft, and the terrifying armored vehicles that soldiers called "tanks." Few weapons, however, were as feared as poison gas, used by both the Allies and the Central Powers in record amounts, despite international conventions forbidding it. One counter-measure the U.S. Army deployed against this modern chemical weapon was a "tool" used for thousands of years: the human nose.

Before the war, Lieutenant Earle Covington Smith had worked as an engineer. Arriving in France in 1918, he reported for training as a gas officer or "official nose." Smith was responsible for sniffing the air to determine whether a gas attack was underway and what type of gas was used. He also had to ensure that soldiers in his unit were equipped to survive the attack.

Smith kept a notebook during his training at Chemical Warfare School, carefully documenting the many types of evidence he would need to evaluate in the course of his duties. On alphabetically organized pages (sample pictured), he included descriptions of the physical characteristics of several types of gas, a table for measuring wind speed by observing conditions, and a list of treatments for soldiers injured by chemical weapons. …

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