Home Science Education A Brief History Of Chemical Warfare From the Ancient World to Today

A Brief History Of Chemical Warfare From the Ancient World to Today


Picture this, an army from the Sasanian Persian Empire begins tunneling through the walls that protect Rome. In an effort to counter them the Romans begin tunneling back. There is just one thing the Romans could not account for, Chemistry. The Persian Empire is at the peak of the scientific world and by combining burnt bitumen and sulfur they create a deadly compound when burnt. As the Romans broke through the Sasanians set fire to the compound and pumped it into the Roman tunnel choking the air with poison gas and killing the Roman soldiers. It is the first known event of a tactic so devastating and sinister that it would change the face of war forever, chemical warfare.

The recent developments in Syria that have brought the U.S. frighteningly close to war in the middle east again bring up an interesting and dark topic. The use of chemical warfare, a tactic so heinous that it’s been considered a war crime since June 17, 1925 when the Geneva protocol was signed. However the use of chemical agents for the purpose of destroying or harming an enemy combatant goes back surprisingly far to A.D. 256 as the true story above illustrates. 20 dead Roman soldiers still clutching their weapons where found piled in a tunnel in the city of Dara-Europos.

pictured below: Gassed Roman soldier


Fast forward to 1346, The Crimean city Caffa (modern day Ukraine) became a target of the Tartars. During the siege the Tartars were struck with an unknown disease. Resourceful as the Tartars were they used their dead as ammunition in their artillery. This is remarkable considering Louis Pasteur would not find evidence of the germ theory until 1864, centuries later.


Moving on to 1763, during the French and Indian wars it is often said that blankets contaminated with smallpox where intentionally given to native Americans to infect them. There is no actual evidence of this and there probably never will be however smallpox did devastate the native Americans and fear of weaponized smallpox would endure for centuries.



1915 came along and a war known commonly as world war 1 is also known as “the chemists war”. The German army was the first to release chlorine gas on the battlefield a the second battle of Ypres. It would be the first major use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, it was so effective that  the shocked German soldiers failed to advance upon seeing the effects.



Ten years later in 1925 the world had seen enough of this devastating new style of combat. The Geneva convention was formed it’s writers stated that, “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” Over thirty countries agreed and signed. The United States pushed for prohibition of chemical and biological weapons but ironically did not sign the Geneva convention until 1975.


1943 at Harvard University a chemist by the name of Louis Fieser and his team develop napalm. An extremely flammable and viscous substance that would be devastate the world in World War 2. The U.S. firebombs Tokyo and there are approximately 100,000 casualties. Almost as much as the Hiroshima nuclear attack and more than the Nagasaki blast.



1960’s The conflict between the U.S.  and Vietnam escalates and a weapon that had been in the works since the 1940’s becomes ready for use on the battlefield. Although it’s use was intended to destroy forests in order to clear a path, it would go on to destroy lives for generations on both sides of the war. It was called agent Orange, birth defects would effect American soldiers for generations.


1992 the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. are the only countries allowed to have Variola specimens in case a vaccine is ever needed. A soviet defector would later go on to make allegations that the U.S.S.R. was stockpiling the virus for use as a biological weapon of war. While they have never admitted to weaponizing small pox they have confessed that an outbreak of weaponized anthrax was responsible for an incident in 1979.


Chemical warfare goes back a long time but it’s unique threat poses serious questions for the future of our planet. How long can we keep toying with nature to create  biological weapons before irreparable damage is done? Seeing the effects of chemical agents on human beings is it ethical to allow any nation anywhere to use them on their own people for any reason?