WASHINGTON - Fort Detrick, where scientist Bruce E. Ivins worked for more than three decades, is the largest U.S. government research center focused primarily on biodefense.
Set on a former airfield north of Frederick where the Maryland National Guard once based a fleet of biplanes, it houses dozens of labs.
Chief among them is the military's main research facility on biological weapons, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where Ivins and other microbiologists worked on anthrax and other deadly agents.
Since World War II, Detrick has been known primarily for its work on biological warfare agents, developing vaccines and other defenses and decontamination techniques. It gained notoriety in the 1940s and 1950s for medical experiments on human subjects, work that was cited by defense attorneys for Nazi doctors on trial at Nuremberg at the close of World War II, according to a history on the institute's Web site.
U.S. work on biological weapons was suspended by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. Since then, research has focused entirely on defenses against bioweapons, according to U.S. officials.
Ivins was a microbiologist at the Army research facility for 35 years, the institute said yesterday, until his death, apparently by suicide, on Tuesday. He reportedly was about to be indicted in the mailing of anthrax-laced letters that killed five people in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Ivins and his colleagues had been studying the biomechanics of anthrax and other materials in order to understand how they react with the immune system, research that was aimed at developing vaccines.
In 1998 the U.S. military began requiring troops to be inoculated with an anthrax vaccine developed at Fort Detrick. The controversial program, which some soldiers said was unnecessary and dangerous, was temporarily halted in 2004 by a federal court order, but it resumed after further tests showed the vaccine was safe.
At Fort Detrick, Ivins had been working on a more specific vaccine that would work on multiple strains of anthrax.
Detrick and the Army research institute also are known for a wide variety of military medical advances including lifesaving blood-clotting agents and microchips that carry individual soldiers' medical records.
"It really is a crown jewel for Maryland," said Norman Covert, a senior official at Fort Detrick for 22 years until he retired as its historian and public affairs director in 1999.
Covert said Ivins and others on the microbiology team "have developed a number of vaccines and prophylaxes against disease that have really helped to protect our soldiers in places which are environmentally dirty battlefields."
"Now," Covert said, "his reputation is in the toilet."
In a statement, USAMRIID said the center "mourns the loss of Dr. Bruce Ivins, who served the Institute for more than 35 years as a civilian microbiologist. In addition to his long and faithful government service, Bruce contributed to our community as a Red Cross volunteer with the Frederick County chapter. We will miss him very much."
Apart from the biomedical research centers, Fort Detrick houses dozens of offices for military and civilian agencies, including the Agriculture Department's Foreign Disease and Weed Science Research Institute, the National Cancer Institute, the Naval Medical Logistics Command and the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center.
About 7,900 people work at Fort Detrick. The complex calls itself the largest employer in Frederick County, pumping more than $500 million into the local economy annually and anchoring the Interstate 270 high-tech corridor.
Currently under construction at the 1,200-acre base is a biotechnology campus that will house civilian and military research centers including units of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as USAMRIID.