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Dr. Ira Baldwin: Biological Weapons Pioneer

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The men carrying their briefcases through Washington, D.C.'s National Airport one day in 1965 appeared to be ordinary travelers. They weren't. Unnoticed by the other people in the airport, these men were surreptitiously spraying bacteria into the air. On another occasion, in New York City, a group smashed lightbulbs filled with bacteria on subway tracks. Even the Pentagon's air-conditioning system eventually became a target for similar acts.

The men carrying out these missions weren't terrorists. They were government personnel conducting secret tests to determine the potential effectiveness of aerially dispersed pathogens by disseminating biological agents they presumed were harmless. Members of the Special Operations Division from the Fort Detrick, Md., biological weapons program conducted more than 200 such tests from 1943 until the mid-1960s. When those experiments became public knowledge in 1977, citizens were outraged that their government had exposed them to live organisms without their consent or knowledge.

One of the principals behind the tests was Dr. Ira L. Baldwin, the man who headed the scientific side of the country's biological warfare program during World War II. Baldwin seemed like an unlikely germ czar. A plant bacteriologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he had written papers on such topics as 'The Root Nodule Bacteria of the Leguminosae, a pioneering work on how to use bacteria to increase agricultural productivity.

In 1942, Baldwin, then 47 and the chairman of the university's bacteriology department, received a call from Colonel William Kabrich, chief of the technical division of the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service, inviting him to a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. The colonel gave no specifics beforehand, but just said that it involved a matter of national importance.

Baldwin arrived at the meeting to find a group of bacteriologists, most of them experts in medical bacteriology, unlike himself. Kabrich asked the scientists a question: How could you produce tons of live pathogenic microorganisms and maintain their virulence, but not risk the safety of the producers or the surrounding community?

The discussion went around the room. The medical biologists were generally skeptical: Either you couldn't produce the microorganisms in large amounts, or you couldn't culture them safely. Baldwin, experienced at working with fermentation in breweries, disagreed. If you can do it in a test tube, you can do it with a 10,000-gallon tank, with equal safety and perhaps more, he later recalled saying. All you have to do is make the same conditions in a 10,000-gallon tank that you make in a test tube. Ten days later, Baldwin was back in Wisconsin when Kabrich called him again, this time with a request that he lead the country's scientific effort to find ways to develop, and defend against, biological warfare agents.

Baldwin was the grandson of a Methodist minister, and as a youth he had filled in as preacher at small country churches. Now the colonel was asking him to produce microbes that could kill great numbers of human beings. He made his decision within a day. I think there is no question that the idea of using biological agents to kill people represented a complete shift of thinking, he later said in an interview. But it only took me about 24 hours to think my way through it. After all, the immorality of war is war itself. You start out with the idea in war of killing people, and that to me is the immoral part of it. It doesn't make much difference how you kill them.

Biological warfare is the use of living organisms such as bacteria, viruses or toxins to wage war. Sometimes called the poor man's nuclear weapon, biological agents are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, yet have potentially devastating results. Among them are anthrax, typhus, cholera and dysentery. Another biological agent is botulinum toxin, described as the most lethal substance in the world. In theory, a single gram of botulinum could kill one million people. The Geneva Convention outlawed the use of biological warfare in 1925, but did not prohibit nations from continuing the production of biological agents. President Richard Nixon ordered the dismantling of the United States' offensive biowarfare programs in 1969, but other nations continued theirs. Of greatest concern today are the threats posed by terrorists or by rogue countries such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq. (Much of the raw material for Iraq's biological agents came from American companies — at that time the United States was backing Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.) Iraq has been especially interested in botulinum toxin. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, United Nations inspectors reported that they could not account for approximately 3 times the amount needed to kill the entire current human population by inhalation, according to a report by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Biological warfare has proved to be a genie that is very difficult to put back into the bottle.

The United States had contemplated the issue of biological warfare even before it entered World War II. In the fall of 1941, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote, Because of the dangers that might confront this country from potential enemies employing what might be broadly described as biological warfare, it seems advisable that investigations be initiated to survey the present situation and the future possibilities. Britain was already at war, and authorities there feared that Nazi Germany would place deadly organisms in the V-1 buzz bombs that were raining down on that country. (The full extent of Japan's biowarfare program, which involved widespread testing on human subjects, did not come to light until after the war.) Spurred on by their fears of Nazi biological attacks, the British launched their own biowarfare program. On the Scottish island of Gruinard, British scientists did such extensive testing of anthrax that the entire island was declared off-limits to the public for decades afterward. But despite its head start, Britain was unable to create the massive quantities of biological agents it wanted.

Once the United States entered the war, Stimson was ready to move forward. There is but one logical course to pursue, he wrote, namely, to study the possibilities of such warfare from every angle, make every preparation for reducing its effectiveness, and thereby reduce the likelihood of its use. With President Franklin Roosevelt's authorization, Stimson established a highly secret civilian agency to coordinate government and private efforts for a biological warfare program. The new entity, called the War Research Service, operated under the Federal Security Agency, a New Deal agency within the Department of Agriculture. George W. Merck, the president of Merck Pharmaceutical Company, became its director. In that role, on December 10, 1942, he requested the Chemical Warfare Service to develop the program.

Things moved quickly. By December 21, Baldwin arrived at his new assignment at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, the focal point of the country's chemical warfare research. He had much to do. First he had to select a suitable site for making deadly bio-organisms, a place that was close to Washington but not too close. Baldwin chose Detrick Field, an abandoned 92-acre airfield outside Frederick, Md., about 50 miles northwest of Washington, that had been used by the Maryland National Guard. The Chemical Warfare Service took possession of the airfield, and Detrick Field became Camp Detrick (and later Fort Detrick).

Baldwin also had to recruit staff, and he drafted some of his University of Wisconsin faculty colleagues and students. If I said, `I want that man,' unless the Manhattan Project said they needed him, I got him, he declared.

Most of the individuals serving at Camp Detrick were military personnel, and many of the scientists became commissioned officers. Baldwin was a World War I veteran, but he opted to remain a civilian in WWII. He explained, I used to say that as long as I wore a red necktie I could say no to anybody, but as soon as I put on a uniform, whether it was as a colonel or general or something else, there was always somebody up above that you had to say, `Yes, sir,' to. On the other hand, he added: While I could say no to anybody else, as a civilian I couldn't command people under me in the same way that the military could. Still, in a research assignment I never felt that you could accomplish very much by commanding people anyways. Unless you can convince them that what you want done is useful, and this is a suitable main procedure, research people don't accomplish very much.

The staff had an immediate order to fill: Britain had requested seven pounds of dried botulinum toxin. When testing anthrax, the British had used 13-gallon stainless steel milk cans to produce small quantities. The Camp Detrick personnel used a similar production method to fill the British order for botulinum, but on a larger scale. First they erected a temporary tar paper–covered shack dubbed Black Maria. It was a first attempt at creating the kind of containment facility that would keep the deadly product from killing its makers or escaping into the environment. The Americans tried to incorporate some of the British techniques, using four 100-gallon reactor tanks connected by piping and valves. Hot steam disinfected the equipment to keep it free of unwanted organisms. The scientists grew the bacteria in a culture media of an extract of pressed corn kernels. It took only two days for bacteria in the tanks to multiply and produce the deadly toxin. Personnel worked around the clock to fill the order. When it was completed, the staff destroyed Black Maria so they could replace it with plants with a larger capacity.

The Detrick complex grew rapidly, eventually encompassing more than 245 structures, including a hospital, firehouse, theater and library. By August 1945, the base held nearly 250 Army officers and 1,457 enlisted Army personnel, 87 naval officers and 475 enlisted naval personnel, and nine civilians.

The facility's heart was the 50,605-square-foot hangar housing the two plants that made anthrax and botulinum toxins. The larger plant had a 10,000-gallon fermenter and two 3,700-gallon fermenters. Baldwin had been as good as his word: He could indeed produce large quantities of biological agents. Camp personnel also tried to develop munitions that could spread biological agents but with limited success. They ended up using the bombs that the British had developed.

Another side of Camp Detrick's work was the development of vaccines and toxoids (a weaker version of a toxin that stimulates defensive measures in the body) to protect against a biological attack. Scientists did find a means to mass-produce a toxoid to protect against botulinum, and by the summer of 1944, they had produced and stored more than 4,000 gallons, a sufficient amount to protect a large number troops. But the means of protecting against many other biological agents remained undiscovered by war's end.

Security and safety were major concerns at Camp Detrick. Fences, towers and floodlights ringed the site, while guards armed with machine guns patrolled the premises. Scientists working in the laboratories kept loaded .45-caliber pistols close by and lived in barracks within the restricted military environment of the camp.

Baldwin was especially proud of the operation's safety arrangements. Detrick researchers, in fact, created innovations that became standards in later lab work. Buildings were divided into clean areas, for offices and changing rooms, and hot areas, with airlocks connecting the two sides. Blowers maintained negative air pressure that ensured toxins remained in the hot areas; contaminated air was sterilized with an air incinerator. Vaccines, toxoids, immune sera, penicillin and streptomycin along with leakproof masks helped protect those working with the microorganisms. The carcasses of animals killed during tests — a total of 658,039, including sheep, ferrets, cats, pigs, white mice and guinea pigs — were sterilized with steam in an autoclave, then burned in an incinerator.

One British scientist complained that the safety precautions were excessive. As Ed Regis reported in his book, The Biology of Doom, Baldwin responded: I'm not really worried about whether you get killed or not. If you do, we'll feel sorry about it and we'll take a couple of hours off and we'll go to the funeral and we'll come home and go to work again. But if we get organisms out into the air and Farmer Jones' cows over here get anthrax and they die, we'll have a Congressional investigation that will probably shut down the whole post. So I really am not as much interested in you as I am in protecting the community.

Despite the safety efforts, at least four men died during the years of the project. William Boyles, a 46-year-old microbiologist, died of anthrax on November 25, 1951, and Joel Willard, 53, an electrician, died of anthrax on July 5, 1958, after he entered an infected area to change a lightbulb. A primate infected with the Machupo virus killed animal caretaker Albert Nickel, 53. And a young Army lieutenant died in 1944 when a pump exploded. In 1946, the Army reported that 60 cases had required treatment as a result of accidental exposure to biological agents. But Baldwin pointed out that none of the incidents occurred at a pilot plant, which he said confirmed his statement that you could create the organisms at least as safely there as you could in a lab.

While Camp Detrick remained the center of the research project, Baldwin also needed a site to conduct outdoor tests. In January 1943, he selected Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico as the testing site for bombs loaded with biological agents. An army of technicians descended on the island to turn it into a testing facility, building 144 structures and a narrow-gauge railroad to transport animals from corrals to the test area. But then the Detrick team learned that for most of the year prevailing winds blew toward the nearby shores of Alabama and Mississippi. As a result, they never tested bacteria on the island, though they did conduct open-air testing of toxins, including botulinum. They also conducted tests at Granite Peak, a 250-square-mile area near the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, activated in June 1944.

Baldwin also needed a full-production facility that could produce large quantities of weapons, including an order for 1 million bombs filled with anthrax, half for the British and half for the United States. The Chemical Warfare Service acquired a former Army ordnance site in Vigo, Ind., in May 1944 and spent about $10 million over the next 18 months to prepare it for manufacturing biological agents. The Vigo plant could have had a production capacity of 240,000 gallons, but the war ended before safety testing was completed at that facility.

By then Baldwin was experiencing friction with the Army brass. General Rollo Ditto had complained that work on the Vigo plant was moving too slowly, and he decided to replace Baldwin's engineer with someone who had no biological engineering experience. In response, Baldwin asked to be relieved of technical responsibility for the work. The general backed down somewhat — he sent his personal representative but put him under the direction of Baldwin's engineer.

In a history of anthrax research published in 2001, reporter H.P. Albarelli, Jr., wrote that Baldwin also faced increased pressure from the Army's eagerness to increase anthrax production. Baldwin was less than enthusiastic about anthrax as a weapon, as were many of his handpicked scientists, Albarelli wrote. One of the greatest dangers of using anthrax was the bacteria's longevity — anthrax spores can remain dormant for decades, as the British learned through their experiences on Gruinard Island. Opposing Baldwin was British bacteriologist Lord Trevor Stamp. Former Camp Detrick researchers who knew Stamp said he was often at odds with Baldwin over anthrax research. Stamp generally won out on most clashes, Albarelli wrote, because he had friends in high places. Among them were members of the military who resented Baldwin because of his civilian status. Finally, in the spring of 1945, Baldwin resigned his position to return to Wisconsin and become dean of the university's graduate school.

Baldwin stayed active in the biological weapons program. As chairman of the Committee on Biological Warfare, he continued to be concerned that saboteurs might use biological agents against the United States, perhaps by dispersing organisms in the atmosphere. In October 1948, Baldwin issued a report suggesting that ventilating, water supply and subway systems be tested with innocuous organisms to see how environmental conditions would affect them. One of those experiments took place in September 1950, when Army and Navy personnel on a ship about two miles off the coast near San Francisco Bay sprayed two species of bacteria into the air. They used Bacillus globigii because it formed spores similar to anthrax, and Serratia marcescens because its red pigment made it easy to track. After the experiments became public knowledge in 1977, family members of a 75-year-old man who had died of pneumonia at the time of the tests sued the government, arguing that the bacteria had been responsible for his death, but the courts decided in favor of the government. Nevertheless, several of the organisms used in the tests, including Serratia marcescens, then considered harmless, are now believed to occasionally cause infections, especially in people with compromised immune systems.

Although controversial and potentially dangerous, Baldwin's work with biological weapons neither harmed his academic career nor affected his health. He died peacefully at his Tucson, Ariz., home in 1999 at the age of 103. His death notices gave little attention to his role in the creation of biological weapons. The University of Wisconsin's obituary did not mention that phase of Baldwin's career until the seventh paragraph, and then it was only a brief note: He was also among a national group of scientists that began to explore the frontiers of biological warfare.

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