- SAN FRANCISCO - Fifty-one
years ago, Edward J. Nevin checked into a San Francisco hospital,
of chills, fever and general malaise. Three weeks later, the 75-year-old
retired pipe fitter was dead, the victim of what doctors said was an
of the bacterium Serratia marcescens.
- Decades later, Mr. Nevin's family learned what they
was the cause of the infection, linked at the time to the hospitalizations
of 10 other patients. In Senate subcommittee hearings in 1977, the U.S.
Army revealed that weeks before Mr. Nevin sickened and died, the Army had
staged a mock biological attack on San Francisco, secretly spraying the
city with Serratia and other agents thought to be harmless.
- The goal: to see what might happen in a real germ-warfare
attack. The experiment, which involved blasting a bacterial fog over the
entire 49-square-mile city from a Navy vessel offshore, was recorded with
clinical nonchalance: "It was noted that a successful BW [biological
warfare] attack on this area can be launched from the sea, and that
dosages can be produced over relatively large areas," the Army wrote
in its 1951 classified report on the experiment.
- Now, with anthrax in the mail and fear mounting of
biological attacks, researchers are again looking back at the only other
time this country faced the perils of germ warfare - albeit self-inflicted.
In fact, much of what the Pentagon knows about the effects of bacterial
attacks on cities came from those secret tests conducted on San Francisco
and other American cities from the 1940s through the 1960s, experts
- "We learned a lot about how vulnerable we are to
biological attack from those tests," says Leonard Cole, adjunct
of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of
several books on bioterrorism. "I'm sure that's one reason crop
were grounded after Sept. 11: The military knows how easy it is to disperse
organisms that can affect people over huge areas."
- In other tests in the 1950s, Army researchers dispersed
Serratia on Panama City, Fla., and Key West, Fla., with no known illnesses
resulting. They also released fluorescent compounds over Minnesota and
other Midwestern states to see how far they would spread in the atmosphere.
The particles of zinc-cadmium-sulfide - now a known cancer-causing agent
- were detected more than 1,000 miles away in New York state, the Army
told the Senate hearings, though no illnesses were ever attributed to them
as a result.
- Another bacterium, Bacillus globigii, never shown to
be harmful to people, was released in San Francisco, while still others
were tested on unwitting residents in New York, Washington, D.C., and along
the Pennsylvania Turnpike, among other places, according to Army reports
released during the 1977 hearings.
- In New York, military researchers in 1966 spread Bacillus
subtilis variant Niger, also believed to be harmless, in the subway system
by dropping lightbulbs filled with the bacteria onto tracks in stations
in midtown Manhattan. The bacteria were carried for miles throughout the
subway system, leading Army officials to conclude in a January 1968 report:
"Similar covert attacks with a pathogenic [disease-causing] agent
during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose large numbers of
people to infection and subsequent illness or death."
- Army officials also found widespread dispersal of
in a May 1965 secret release of Bacillus globigii at Washington's National
Airport and its Greyhound bus terminal, according to military reports
a few years after the Senate hearings. More than 130 passengers who had
been exposed to the bacteria traveling to 39 cities in seven states in
the two weeks following the mock attack.
- The Army kept the biological-warfare tests secret until
word of them was leaked to the press in the 1970s. Between 1949 and 1969,
when President Nixon ordered the Pentagon's biological weapons destroyed,
open-air tests of biological agents were conducted 239 times, according
to the Army's testimony in 1977 before the Senate's subcommittee on health.
In 80 of those experiments, the Army said it used live bacteria that its
researchers at the time thought were harmless, such as the Serratia that
was showered on San Francisco. In the others, it used inert chemicals to
- Several medical experts have since claimed that an untold
number of people may have gotten sick as a result of the germ tests. These
researchers say even benign agents can mutate into unpredictable pathogens
once exposed to the elements.
- "The possibility cannot be ruled out that
in wind conditions or ventilation systems in buildings might concentrate
organisms, exposing people to high doses of bacteria," testified
Weitzman of the State University of New York, in the 1977 Senate
- For its part, the Army justified its experiments by
concerns during World War II that U.S. cities might come under biological
attack. To prepare a response, the Army said, it had to test microbes on
populated areas to learn how bacteria disperse.
- "Release in and near cities, in real-world
were considered essential to the program, because the effect of a built-up
area on a biological agent cloud was unknown," Edward A. Miller, the
Army's secretary for research and development at the time, told the
- But in at least one case - the bacterial fogging of San
Francisco - the research may have gone awry. Between Sept. 20 and Sept.
27 of 1950, a Navy mine-laying vessel cruised the San Francisco coast,
spraying an aerosol cocktail of Serratia and Bacillus microbes - all
to be safe - over the famously foggy city from giant hoses on deck,
to declassified Army reports. According to lawyers who have reviewed the
reports, researchers added fluorescent particles of zinc-cadmium-sulfide
to better measure the impact. Based on results from monitoring equipment
at 43 locations around the city, the Army determined that San Francisco
had received enough of a dose for nearly all of the city's 800,000
to inhale at least 5,000 of the particles.
- Two weeks after the spraying, on Oct. 11, 1950, Mr. Nevin
checked in to the Stanford Hospital in San Francisco with fever and other
symptoms. Ten other men and women checked in to the same hospital - which
has since been relocated to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. -
with similar complaints. Doctors noticed that all 11 had the same malady:
a pneumonia caused by exposure to bacteria believed to be Serratia
Mr. Nevin died three weeks later. The others recovered. Doctors were so
surprised by the outbreak that they reported it in a medical journal,
at the time to the secret germ test.
- After the Army disclosed the tests nearly three decades
later, Mr. Nevin's surviving family members filed suit against the federal
government, alleging negligence. "My grandfather wouldn't have died
except for that, and it left my grandmother to go broke trying to pay his
medical bills," says Mr. Nevin's grandson, Edward J. Nevin III, a
San Francisco attorney who filed the case in U.S. District Court
- Army officials noted the pneumonia outbreak in their
1977 Senate testimony but said any link to their experiments was totally
coincidental. No other hospitals reported similar outbreaks, the Army
out, and all 11 victims had urinary-tract infections following medical
procedures, suggesting that the source of their infections lay inside the
- The Nevin family appealed the suit all the way to the
U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to overturn lower court judgments
the government's immunity from lawsuits.
- Today, the U.S. military is again patrolling San
coastline, guarding against someone who might try to copy the Army tests
of half a century ago. Local officials say such an attack is unlikely,
given the logistical problems of blasting the city without Navy
- Partly as a result of Mr. Nevin's death, says Lucien
Canton, director of San Francisco's emergency services, "one thing
we now know is that it takes an awful lot of stuff to produce casualties,
especially in a place like San Francisco that always has a stiff
- Copyright 2001 Wall Street Journal
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