World War I was the chemist’s war

Henning Anderson is pictured in the Marquette High School 1910 Agora Yearbook. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Imagine, for a moment, that you are a soldier serving in the First World War. You’re in a trench on the front lines, waiting to go over the top and attack the enemy, when in the breeze you catch a pungent nauseating smell, somewhat like pineapple and pepper, which tickles the throat and makes your eyes smart. You watch in horror as the slow-moving yellow-green cloud drifts towards your trenches.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! –An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

– British poet Lt. Wilfred Owen, 1917

In addition to being known as the Great War, World War I was also called the Chemist’s War due to the widespread use of chemical warfare agents, including chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases by all the major belligerents.

One of those chemists was Marquette native Henning John Anderson. Henning was born in Marquette in September 1892 and graduated from Howard-Frobel School. He attended Gustavus Adolphus College in Minneapolis studying pre-medicine but by the time he enlisted in February 1918 he was teaching high school science in Minnesota.

With his background in the sciences, Henning was attached to the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service. He never served in Europe, instead working in research laboratories in Washington, D.C., and in Cleveland, Ohio. After the first gas attacks of the war, it was discovered that ammonia could neutralize the chlorine and a crude gas mask was developed using a cotton pad soaked in urine. Other temporary solutions included handkerchiefs and socks dampened with a solution of bicarbonate of soda.

Obviously, these were not ideal and made fighting difficult. Henning and the other men in his section were tasked with continuing to develop a better means of protecting men against gas attacks. They tested various materials including charcoals treated with steam, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and copper compounds against the many gases being used as weapons in the war.

Once a material proved effective in neutralizing the weaponized gases, it was used in canisters for gas masks. Thanks to Henning, his associates, and their development of a series of increasingly effective gas masks, even as gas use increased as the war progressed, its overall effectiveness decreased.

Following the war, Henning was discharged in February 1919 and returned to Marquette. He joined the Marquette Public Schools where he taught high school chemistry and physics until 1928 when he became the principal of Marquette High School.

During his tenure with the Marquette schools, he obtained a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. In 1947 after 19 years as principal, he relinquished the position. He rounded out his nearly 40 year-long educational career, again teaching high school chemistry and physics, this time at Negaunee High School, before finally retiring in 1958.

Henning was involved in several professional, social, and religious organizations including the American Legion, the Masonic Lodge, the Michigan and National Education Associations, the National Association of Secondary Principals, and Messiah Lutheran Church. Interested in national health betterment programs, he worked in the annual Easter Seal campaign and chaired the county chapter of the American Cancer Society.

He also conducted the testing program for St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing for several years. Seventy-six-year-old Henning Anderson died of a heart attack while on vacation in Indiana in April 1969.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today