Research tested faith, citizenship

Soldiers: Decades later, Seventh-day Adventists who volunteered as subjects in a Cold War biological warfare program show no ill effects.

October 05, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

It was one of the most bizarre military assignments of the Cold War, and a half-century later James R. Morgan remembers it vividly: He strapped on a face mask, clamped it to a port on the side of a huge Fort Detrick test chamber called "the Eight Ball" and inhaled the germs that would infect him with an exotic disease called Q fever.

"I felt a little difference in the temperature of the air," says Morgan, 71, of Adelphi. "I knew at that moment I'm breathing something that's going to make me sick."

Morgan was a Whitecoat, one of 2,300 Seventh-day Adventist soldiers who found an alternative to combat duty by volunteering as test subjects in the U.S. biological warfare program between 1954 and 1973.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in the later editions of the Sunday Sun misstated the years during which James R. Morgan served as a volunteer in the Army's Whitecoat program at Fort Detrick. While the program lasted from 1954 to 1973, Morgan served only from 1955 to 1957. Also, an album in the photo contains shots of Morgan and his family at the time of Operation Whitecoat, and not pictures of the program itself.

"It seemed a choice that was loyal both to the Army and to our church," says Morgan, a retired gas station operator and auto mechanics teacher, and grandfather of seven. "Our church leaders recommended it as a good option."

On the advice of a fellow guinea pig, Morgan guzzled lots of water after the Q fever test and experienced only a mild flu. Some of his friends were not so lucky. "It was like a cartoon I remember: `With a little luck, I'll be dead by morning,' " he says.

To this day, most Whitecoats are proud that they found a way to serve without violating the Adventists' strong religious convictions against killing. If there's any resentment, it comes from a sense that they were lured into testing offensive germ weapons and not just defensive vaccines.

Morgan and 150 other veterans of Operation Whitecoat gathered in Frederick this weekend for a reunion that included prayers, reminiscences and a briefing by a Fort Detrick researcher who surveyed the health of the test subjects.

Some also attended yesterday's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the biological warfare and defense program at Fort Detrick, organized by Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

A slew of tests

Over two decades and 153 studies, the Whitecoats - young, healthy, male soldiers who usually obeyed the church's ban on smoking and drinking - tested vaccines and drugs against a witches' brew of diseases: tularemia, sandfly fever, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and others.

Some tested early versions of the biohazard suits that soldiers use today. Others were subjected to extremes of heat or to sleep deprivation. In one experiment, Morgan was kept awake for 80 hours by medics who poked him with an electric prod when he nodded off.

"At about 70 hours, your ability to think was pretty much wiped out," Morgan recalls.

Though the notion of deliberately infecting people might sound sinister today, most Whitecoats believe they suffered no harm, a conclusion the new health survey supports.

Ethics specialists who have studied the Whitecoat program say its informed-consent process was remarkably sophisticated and complete. "To this day, we use basically the consent process they used," says Dr. Arthur O. Anderson, the top ethicist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, the biodefense successor to the Cold War programs at Fort Detrick.

Anderson says participation in Whitecoat tests appears to have been genuinely voluntary - about 20 percent of soldiers chose not to join any study. He says the soldiers were given at least 48 hours after the risks of an experiment were explained to decide whether to participate.

"By the standards of the time, Whitecoat was exemplary," says Jonathan D. Moreno, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Virginia, who studied Whitecoat for his 2001 book Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans.

Moreno says American attitudes toward such experiments have shifted sharply since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax mailings, which revived the atmosphere of imminent threat that prevailed at the height of the Cold War.

Before the 2001 attacks, he says, no research review committee would have approved giving the smallpox vaccine - which carries a small risk of severe or fatal side effects - to a healthy young adult. Now, because of fears that terrorists might get hold of hidden stocks of the virus, thousands of health care workers are getting the vaccine.

The same changing risk-benefit perception applies to Whitecoat, Moreno says: "Before Sept. 11, people were aghast at the idea of exposing people deliberately to diseases. Now there's a lot more understanding."

False impressions

Given the religious convictions that led them into the program, some of the Whitecoats feel they were not fully informed about the nature of the biological warfare program at Fort Detrick. From World War II until President Richard M. Nixon closed the program in 1969, Army researchers there made biological bombs and spray devices to attack a potential enemy with lethal or crippling germs.

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