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.