Remembrance Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the work of Edward Harrison, inventor of the gas mask that saved millions of lives
Today we observe Remembrance Day, and a two-minute silence at 11:00. This marks the signing 92 years ago of the Armistice with Germany and with it the end of the First World War.
Remembrance Day falls on 11 November to mark the signing of the Armistice but is more widely a memorial day for those who have fought and died in all armed conflicts.
At the Royal Society of Chemistry the Chief Executive lays a wreath of poppies at the base of the war memorial in Burlington House, London, which has on it inscribed the names of members of the RSC who died in the war.
Each is memorialised equally, but one name stands out from the list of 56 “Fellows, Associates and Students of the Institute of Chemistry who died in the service of their country, 1914-1918.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Frank Harrison C.M.G. was a pharmaceutical chemist who tried to join up when war broke out but was refused owing to his age. A couple of years later he was accepted to the Sportsman’s Battalion, one of the many so-called Pals Battalions, lying about his age to meet even these more lax requirements.
In 1915 Germany tested the first full scale deployment of chemical warfare, using chlorine gas against the French at Ypres. The lethal toxin phosgene and the horrifically-burning mustard gas were also developed and deployed, so the British War Office convened a research group of chemists to combat the threat, of which Harrison was a key member.
The work was dangerous and uncomfortable but in 1916 Harrison produced the first box respirator, thought to have saved millions of lives. He and his team tested it personally, locking themselves in rooms with lethal chemical agents to prove their invention’s worth and efficacy.
The mask was a two-piece affair: an enclosed mask, connected by a hose to a box worn on a shoulder strap. The box contained filters and chemicals that neutralised many varieties of poisonous gases.
Continual improvements to the mask’s portability and effectiveness led to many promotions and distinctions for Harrison, who was eventually made an officer of the Royal Engineers with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He also received many foreign honours, including the French Legion d’Honneur, their highest military honour.
Sadly his great effort to help mankind would lead to his demise. Working tirelessly through evenings and weekends, and willingly exposing himself to terrible hazards in the name of saving lives, Harrison died from pneumonia just one week before the signing of the Armistice.
Investigative efforts by the RSC led to the discovery of Harrison’s personal documents at the British Library. In a long-forgotten box of personal effects were medals, newspaper cuttings mourning his death, and at the very bottom of the pile a note signed by the then Minster for Munitions, Winston Churchill.
The note was addressed to Harrison’s widow, and detailed Churchill’s admiration for his work. The Minister, who would later twice become Prime Minister and win a Nobel Prize in Literature, had intended to promote him again to the rank of Brigadier-General in charge of chemical warfare, writing "it is in large measure to him that our troops have been given effectual protection from the German poisonous gases".
The RSC also awards a prize every year named in honour of Harrison, for "the most meritorious and promising original investigations in chemistry and published results of those investigations".
So as we remember all those who have given their lives to protect their country, we pay special tribute to a chemist who gave his life, like so many others, while making a broad-ranging and vital contribution to the safety of British troops.blog comments powered by