Medicine: Germs for World War III?

  • Share
  • Read Later

For 22 months, at the Army Chemical Warfare Services' Camp Detrick, Md., a team of bacteriologists, physicians, chemists, engineers, geneticists and biophysicists worked in secret. Their job: to find the best way to produce a rain of germy death for World War II. Unused, their discoveries are still on the shelf.

Last week the results of their work, with the deadpan title, Experimental Air-Borne Infection, were published (Williams & Wilkins: $4). This project's chief was serious, dark-eyed Theodor Rosebury,* now back at his old job as associate professor in the department of bacteriology at Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons. The book does for bacteriological warfare what the Smyth report did for atomic warfare. But nowhere in the book are the horrid words "bacterial warfare" even mentioned.

So Deadly. In the clean-scrubbed,workaday words of the scientists, the book describes "techniques and results." The very fact that such a book can be published without revealing any real secrets stresses a verbal warning by Dr. Rosebury: "Bacterial warfare can be developed by any nation, large or small, rich or poor, to which the resources of modern bacteriology are available." "Resources," in this case, can mean almost any sort of laboratory.

The book offers no headline-hungry conclusions—nothing more sensational than some stuffy equations which show how many microbes the experimenters had to spray into a closed chamber to kill off their mice and guinea pigs. But the between-the-lines conclusion is monstrously clear; spreading infectious diseases by air is a practical, cheap, comparatively easy, deadly method of warfare.

The experimenters "set out to discover which diseases, spread by air, are most easily contracted and most fatal. Tularemia (rabbit fever) won on both counts. Runners-up: melioidosis, a glanders-like Oriental disease; glanders.

So Easy. Best way to spread airborne infection in a laboratory, the researchers found, is "an all-glass, direct-spray peripheral air-jet instrument," much like a perfume atomizer. In wartime, the same technique might be applied by airplanes spraying disease as they now spray insecticides over truck farms. The raw materials of bacteriological warfare are easy to stockpile, and it is not really necessary to kill wholesale. Causing civilian panic should be fairly simple and adequate.

There was one bright spot for men of good will—including the scientists, who prefer to work on something less disastrous to mankind: much of what was learned at Camp Detrick about spreading airborne infections can be applied to curing peacetime ills. Their equipment is now being adapted for research on the common cold.

*Who credits 11 coauthors, 16 assistants.