Sunday, May 17, 2009

Repost #6: My Dad's Contribution to Biological Warfare

Original post: February 7, 2007

I bet you think this is a joke, don't you?

It's not.

With all of the emphasis that's been placed on biological weapons and terrorism since 9/11, there has been a renewed interest in the U.S. government's forays into bio warfare. While my father was in the army, he was a participant in biological warfare experiments at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, home of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. I caught a show on PBS the other night about Operation Whitecoat, which reminded me of his participation.

Operation Whitecoat was the U.S. Army's solution to dealing with conscientious objectors and the perceived threat of biological warfare by the Soviet Union. My father was one of the conscientious objectors that became a human guinea pig.

Many of you know that I was raised a Seventh-Day-Adventist, which probably explains a lot about how screwed up I am. My father was also raised Seventh-Day-Adventist and like a number of others during wartime, felt a duty to serve their country, but were opposed to killing. Many, like my father, became medics. During the Viet Nam war, medics were often sitting ducks. They were inserted with slow flying helicopters and were often targets of the Viet Cong. When the U.S. Army needed human test subjects for their germ warfare experiments, they asked for volunteers from their ranks of Seventh-Day-Adventist draftees. The top secret experiments on humans were given the code name Operation Whitecoat.

My dad's experiments involved Q fever. He was exposed to the bacterium Coxiella burnetii, which usually manifests itself with flu like symptoms that last between one and two weeks. As far he knew, this was all he was ever exposed to, but you never know when it comes to this type of experimentation. In most of these experiments, the scientists would fill a 40 ft. diameter steel sphere called the Eight Ball with the particular virus or bacteria that they were studying. The volunteers would attach gas masks which had been hooked up to the Eight Ball and breathe the infected air. Then they would wait. When they began showing symptoms, treatment would be given.

I think my dad was one of the more fortunate ones. Some of the other things to which volunteers were exposed were rabbit fever, anthrax and black plague, significantly more serious diseases. Of the 2300 volunteers, none died, although there is evidence that some did experience health problems related to their exposure for years and even decades after. Operation Whitecoat came to a formal end in 1973. In 2003 on the 30th anniversary of the end of Operation Whitecoat, my dad was sent a medal for his service. It now hangs in my studio.

One surprising conclusion to which the PBS show came was that Operation Whitecoat most likely had a direct effect on Richard Nixon's decision to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol which prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in 1969. Work at Ft. Detrick continues to this day, revolving around defense against biological weapons and infectious diseases. It is also home to the National Cancer Institute.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Thanks for posting that! I never knew that, or much else for that matter, about him. :)