In an attempt to make America's biological arsenal more lethal during the Cold War, the Army collected anthrax from the bodies or blood of workers at Fort Detrick who were accidentally infected with the bacteria, veterans of the biowarfare program say.
The experiments, during the 1950s and '60s, were based on long experience with animals showing that anthrax often becomes more virulent after infecting an animal and growing in its body, according to experts on the bacteria and scientific studies published at the time.
Former Army scientists say the anthrax strain used to make weapons was replaced at least once, and possibly three times, with more potent anthrax that had grown in the workers' bodies. But some of the key scientists who did the work more than four decades ago are dead, and records are classified, contradictory or nonexistent, so it is difficult to establish with certainty the details of what happened.
The use of human accident victims to boost the killing power of the nation's germ arsenal is a macabre footnote to a top-secret program designed to destroy enemy troops with such exotic weapons as botulism, smallpox, plague and paralytic shellfish poison.
The offensive bioweapons program was launched during World War II and ended by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.
Today, after a few grams of mailed anthrax have killed five people, sickened 13 others and disrupted the postal system and government, the old program's gruesome potential for destruction seems unimaginable. But at the time, fearing correctly that the Soviet Union had an even larger bioweapons program, Army scientists were driven to come up with more and more lethal disease strains.
"Any deadly diseases, anywhere in the world, we'd go and collect a sample," said Bill Walter, 76, who worked in the weapons program from 1951 until it closed.
Walter was involved in anthrax production from selection of seed stock to the dry, deadly spore powder ready to be loaded into a bomb; his final job was as "principal investigator" in a lab that studied anthrax and other powder weapons.
Walter believes the original weapons strain of anthrax, a variety called Vollum after the British scientist who isolated it, was upgraded with bacteria collected from three Detrick workers who were accidentally infected. Two of them died.
His recollection is supported by another veteran of the anthrax program, 84-year-old James R.E. Smith. A third bioweapons veteran, William C. Patrick III, confirms two of the cases but says he is not sure about the third.
"Anthrax gets stronger as it goes through a human host," said Walter, now retired in Florida. "So we got pulmonary [lung] spores from Bill Boyles and Joel Willard. And finally we got it from Lefty Kreh's finger."
William A. Boyles, a 46-year-old microbiologist, inhaled anthrax spores on the job in 1951 and died a few days later. Seven years after that, Joel E. Willard, 53, an electrician who worked in the "hot" areas where animals were dosed with deadly germs, died of the same inhalational form of the disease.
The third anthrax victim, Bernard "Lefty" Kreh, was a plant operator who spent night shifts in a biohazard suit, breathing air from a tube on the wall, using a kitchen spatula to scrape the anthrax "mud" off the inside of a centrifuge. One day in the late '50s or early '60s, his finger swelled to the size of a sausage with a cutaneous, or skin, anthrax infection.
Kreh went on to become a nationally known outdoors writer and expert on fly fishing. He did not know that the bacteria that had put him in Fort Detrick's hospital for a month had gone on to another life, too - as a sub-strain of anthrax bearing his initials.
"We called it 'LK' - that's what we'd put on the log sheets for each run," Walter said. A "run" was an 1,800-gallon batch of anthrax mixture, grown in one of the 40-foot- high fermenters inside Building 470, which stands empty at Detrick, its demolition planned.
"Lefty's strain was rather easy to detect," Walter said. When a colony of bacteria grew on growth medium, he recalled, "it came out like a little comma, perfectly spherical."
Surprised by his role
Orley R. Bourland Jr., 75, who worked as a plant manager, said anthrax from Kreh's finger was isolated and designated "BVK-1," for Bernard Victor Kreh.
Walter said he assumes the initials in the log sheets were shortened by someone who knew the source of the new sub-strain of anthrax never went by his formal name. Yet in the secret, compartmented biological program, Kreh himself does not recall ever being informed of the use to which his government put his illness.
"You're kidding," Kreh said. "I'll have to tell my wife." He doesn't remember which finger it was, he said, but he does remember that his wife, Evelyn, could see him only through a glass barrier designed to keep any dangerous microbes contained during treatment.
At 77, Kreh, who lives in Cockeysville, lives the full life of a fishing celebrity, writing magazine articles, taking VIPs on fly-fishing expeditions and endorsing products. A former outdoors columnist for The Sun, he credits his 19 years at Fort Detrick with giving him time to develop his expertise. Because of the rotating night-shift work, he said, "Two out of three weeks I could hunt and fish all day long."
The available evidence confirming the use of bacteria from the two men who died, Boyles and Willard, is less complete. W. Irving Jones Jr., 80, of Frederick, a biochemist, remembers his supervisor, Dr. Ralph E. Lincoln, giving him an unusual request some months after the electrician's death.
"Dr. Lincoln had me pull a sample of Willard's dried blood," Jones said. "We were able to grow [the anthrax bacteria] right up. And it was deadly," a determination he made by testing it on animals.
Jones said he cannot confirm the recollection of others that Willard's sub-strain of anthrax was used for a new weapons strain. That might well have happened, he said, if animal tests showed it to be more virulent than the existing weapons strain, the only means of checking potency at the time. But like any secret program, the Army's biowarfare operation was run on a "need-to-know" basis, and weapons development was not his bailiwick, Jones said.
The evidence on Boyles is contradictory. Patrick, who joined the bioweapons program in 1951, the year the microbiologist died of anthrax, said unequivocally that the Vollum weapons strain was altered by passage through Boyles' body and became Vollum 1B.
"That's where Vollum 1B came from," said Patrick, of Frederick, who eventually headed Detrick's product development division. "It's 1-Boyles."
A review of scientific papers on anthrax published by Fort Detrick scientists in the 1940s and '50s offers indirect support for Patrick's contention. The Vollum strain found in the early Detrick papers is first replaced by a Vollum sub-strain called "M36," produced by the British biological weapons program by passing the Vollum strain through a series of monkeys to increase its virulence.
Then, in the late 1950s, references to the M36 variant of Vollum give way to references to "the highly virulent Vollum 1B strain." No 1A strain seems to have existed. Nor is there an explanation of the 1B sub-strain's origin - a break with the standard practice in describing sub-strains derived from passage through animals.
On the other hand, a medical report prepared by the Army 18 years after Boyles' death states that live anthrax bacteria "could not be (and never was) cultivated from blood, sputum, nose and throat, or skin at any time during the illness, not from tissue and fluids taken at autopsy."
The cause of death was confirmed by an autopsy finding of bacteria resembling anthrax in the brain.
The absence of live bacteria may have a simple explanation. Doctors say a person with inhalation anthrax who is given intravenous antibiotics might soon show no live bacteria, even though the person might still die of toxin produced earlier by the bacteria. But if the medical report is accurate, it appears to rule out the possibility that the weapons strain included bacteria collected during or after Boyles' illness.
It is possible that after Boyles' death, blood taken early in his illness was found to contain anthrax. Or, anthrax spores, which are not killed by antibiotics, might have been found in his lungs after death.
Scientists say it is possible, but not certain, that one pass through a human host would boost the virulence of anthrax. Repeated passes through a particular species usually increase the bacteria's lethality toward that species, said David L. Huxsoll, who oversaw anthrax vaccine tests as commander of the Army's biodefense center in the 1980s.
"If you pass it through a rabbit repeatedly, it will kill rabbits, but it won't kill a cow," Huxsoll said. In humans, "you could have a switch toward more virulence on one passage, but it wouldn't necessarily happen."
Officials of the biological defense program at Fort Detrick, where Vollum 1B is still used to test vaccines, do not know of any connection to the accidental human infections, said Caree Vander Linden, spokeswoman for the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. One account passed down by a former staff member was that Vollum 1B was produced by passage of the Vollum strain through rabbits, she said.
If the "B" actually stands for Boyles, it's news to William Boyles' family. Natalie Boyles said Friday that her husband, Charles M. Boyles, William's son, had never heard of such a thing.
Kenneth E. Willard, Joel Willard's son, said the same. "Shock would be my first feeling," Willard said on hearing the evidence described in this article. "Second would be that my mother or I should have been made aware of it, if it happened. We should have been given more information all along."
But secrecy governed everything in the program, including the deaths, because the American bioweapons makers had a keen awareness of the threat from their counterparts in the Soviet Union, occasionally supplemented by detailed information.
"We used to get intelligence reports telling me what my Russian counterpart was doing," Walter said. "Our rate and the Russian rate was the same - about 7 kilograms of dry anthrax a week."
Another parallel exists. If the United States took advantage of tragic accidents to make its anthrax deadlier, those experiments were mirrored at least once in the Soviet program. Far larger than the U.S. effort, the Soviet biowarfare program was also secretly continued after 1972, when the nations signed a treaty banning such work.
According to Ken Alibek, a former deputy chief of the Soviet program who defected to the United States in 1992, a scientist named Nikolai Ustinov accidentally pricked himself while injecting a guinea pig with Marburg virus in 1988. He died an agonizing death two weeks later.
"No one needed to debate the next step," Alibek wrote in his 1999 book Biohazard. "Orders went out immediately to replace the old strain with the new, which was called, in a move the wry Ustinov might have appreciated, 'Variant U.'"