- It is a story worthy of a major conspiracy theory, the
script for a James Bond movie, or a blueprint for a contrived episode of
"The X Files". Except the facts surrounding this story are just
that. Facts. The Truth. At least twelve, and perhaps as many as twenty
eminent scientists, leaders in their particular field of scientific research,
dead in the last few months, and a bizarre connection between one of the
scientists and the mystery surrounding the death by Anthrax inhalation
of a sixty one year old female hospital worker in New York. Sounds far
fetched? Read on.
- Since November last year several world-acclaimed scientific
researchers, specialising in infectious diseases and biological agents
such as Smallpox and Anthrax, as well as DNA sequencing, environmental
research and microbiology have died, many in unusual circumstances.
- First, on November 12th, was Dr. Benito Que, a cell biologist
working on infectious diseases like HIV, who was found comatose outside
his laboratory at the Miami Medical School. He later died. Police say the
attack was possibly the result of a mugging. The Miami Herald reported
- "The incident, whatever it may have been, occurred
on Monday afternoon as the scientist left his job at University of Miami's
School of Medicine. He headed for his car, a white Ford Explorer parked
on Northwest 10th Avenue. The word among his friends is that four men armed
with a baseball bat attacked him at his car."
- On November 16th, within of week of Dr. Que's assault,
Dr. Don C Wiley, one of the United States foremost infectious disease researchers
was declared missing. Associated Press wrote:
- "His rental car was found with a full tank of petrol
and the keys in the ignition. His disappearance looked like a suicide,
but according to colleagues and Dr. Wiley's family, the Harvard Scientist
associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute would never commit
suicide. Associates who attended the St. Jude's Children Research Advisory
Dinner with Dr. Wiley, just hours before he disappeared, said that he was
in good spirits and not depressed. He was last seen at the banquet at the
Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis the night he vanished. Those who saw
him last say he showed no signs of a man contemplating his own death."
- Wiley left the hotel around midnight. The bridge where
his car was found is only a five-minute drive away and in the wrong direction
from where he was staying, leaving authorities with a four-hour, unexplained
gap until his vehicle was found. Memphis police were exploring several
theories involving suicide, robbery and murder.
- On December 21st Reuters issued the following report:
- "The body of a Harvard scientist missing for more
than a month since his rental car was left parked on a bridge over the
Mississippi River has been found downstream. Workers at a hydro-electric
plant in Louisiana found the body of Dr. Don Wiley on Thursday, about 300
miles south of Memphis where the molecular biologist was last seen on Nov.
16. Authorities have yet to determine the cause of death, Memphis police
- Dr. Wiley was an expert on how the human immune system
fights off infections and had recently investigated such dangerous viruses
as AIDS, Ebola, herpes and influenza.
- From the United States, the story moves to England. On
November 23rd, Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik, a former microbiologist for Biopreparat,
the Soviet biological-weapons production facility was found dead. The Times
provided an obituary for Dr. Pasechnik, and said:
- "The defection to Britain in 1989 of Vladimir Pasechnik
revealed to the West for the first time the colossal scale of the Soviet
Union's clandestine biological warfare programme. His revelations about
the scale of the Soviet Union's production of such biological agents as
anthrax, plague, tularaemia and smallpox provided an inside account of
one of the best kept secrets of the Cold War. After his defection he worked
for ten years at the UK Department of Health's Centre for Applied Microbiology
Research before forming his own company, Regma Biotechnics, to work on
therapies for cancer, neurological diseases, tuberculosis and other infectious
diseases. In the last few weeks of his life he had put his research on
anthrax at the disposal of the Government, in the light of the threat from
bioterrorism." Colleagues of Dr. Pasechnik say he died of a stroke.
- Back to the United States, and on December 10th, Dr.
Robert M. Schwartz was found murdered in Leesberg, Virginia. Dr. Schwartz
was a well-known DNA sequencing researcher. He founded the Virginia Biotechnology
Association where he worked on DNA sequencing for 15 years. On Wednesday,
December 12th the Washington Post reported:
- "A well-known biophysicist, who was one of the leading
researchers on DNA sequencing analysis, was found slain in his rural Loudoun
County home after co-workers became concerned when he didn't arrive at
work as expected. Robert M. Schwartz, 57, a founding member of the Virginia
Biotechnology Association, was found dead in the secluded fieldstone farmhouse
southwest of Leesburg where he lived alone. Loudoun sheriff's officials
said it appeared that Schwartz had been stabbed." An adult and two
teen-agers have been arrested in the case. The three are said to have a
fascination with both swords and Satanism.
- And so to Victoria State, Australia, where, on December
14th. 2001 a skilled microbiologist was killed at the Commonwealth Scientific
and Industrial Research Organisation's animal diseases facility in Geelong,
Australia. This is the same organisation that, as the journal Nature announced
in January 2000:
- "Australian scientists, Dr Ron Jackson and Dr Ian
Ramshaw, accidentally created an astonishingly virulent strain of mousepox,
a cousin of smallpox, among laboratory mice. They realised that if similar
genetic manipulation was carried out on smallpox, an unstoppable killer
could be unleashed."
- The microbiologist who died was Set Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese
immigrant who had worked at the facility for 15 years. Victoria Police
- "Set Van Nguyen, 44, appeared to have died after
entering an airlock into a storage laboratory filled with nitrogen. His
body was found when his wife became worried after he failed to return from
work. He was killed after entering a low temperature storage area where
biological samples were kept. He did not know the room was full of deadly
gas which had leaked from a liquid nitrogen cooling system. Unable to breathe,
Mr. Nguyen collapsed and died."
- Now for the intriguing part of this story. On Friday,
November 2nd, the Washington Post reported:
- "Officials are now scrambling to determine how a
quiet, 61-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, riding the subway each day to
and from her job in a hospital stockroom, was exposed to the deadly anthrax
spores that killed her this week. They worry because there is no obvious
connection to the factors common to earlier anthrax exposures and deaths:
no clear link to the mail or to the media."
- The name of this quiet 61 year old Vietnamese hospital
worker was Kathy Nguyen.
- And so to the New Year, and still the scientists keep
dying. On February 9th. the Russian daily Pravda reported that:
- "The head of the microbiology sub-faculty of the
Russian State Medical University, Victor Korshunov has been killed. The
body of the dead professor, who had head injuries, was found on Friday
8th. February, in the entrance of the house in Academician Bakulev Street,
Moscow, where the 56-year-old scientist lived." Pravda went on to
reveal that: "It was the third death of a scientist within a few weeks.
In January, the Russian Academy of Science lost two scientists, both well
known around the world. Academician Ivan Glebov died as a result of a bandit
attack in St Petersburg and corresponding Member of the Academy of Science
Alexi Brushlinski was killed in Moscow."
- Exactly a week later, on February 16th. The Times ran
the following article:
- "Detectives were last night trying to unravel the
circumstances in which a leading university research scientist was found
dead at his blood-spattered and apparently ransacked home. The body of
Ian Langford, 40, a senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia's Centre
for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, was discovered
on Monday night by police and ambulancemen. The body was naked from the
waist down and partly wedged under a chair. It is understood that doors
to the terraced house were locked. A post-mortem examination failed to
establish how Dr Langford, who lived alone in the house in Norwich, died."
- Back to the west coast of the United States, where, on
February 28th. San Francisco's Mercury News reported that:
- "Dr. Tanya Holzmayer, a pioneering scientist, was
surprised Wednesday night to find a Domino's Pizza deliveryman at the front
door of her Mountain View home. Moments later, a former colleague appeared
out of the dark, shot her dead and ran off."
- Dr. Holzmayer was a Russian born genomic scientist who
had co-invented a tool that has helped find hundreds of molecular targets
to combat cancer and HIV. Holzmayer and her family came to the United States
in 1989. Until December, Holzmayer had served a four year tenure as senior
vice president of genomics for PPD Discovery, a division of PPD Inc. of
Wilmington, North Carolina. Her killer, said Mercury News, was Chinese
immigrant Guyang Huang, a former colleague who began working as the director
of molecular biology and bioinformatics with PPD Discovery in early 2000.
Mercury News continued:
- "Huang appeared from behind the deliveryman. He
shot Holzmayer several times at close range in the chest and head. As Holzmayer
fell in her doorway, Huang ran to a Ford Explorer and drove away. Less
than an hour after the shooting, Huang called his wife, according to Foster
City Police Capt. Craig Courtin. He told her about the shooting and that
he was going to kill himself, then he hung up. Huang's wife called the
emergency services and Foster City police used search dogs to comb the
area.. They ran into a jogger who had seen Huang's body lying off the walkway
that locals call "The Levee." He had fired a single bullet into
his head, according to Robert Foucrault, San Mateo County's acting coroner.
Police said that at this stage in their investigations there appeared to
be no motive for the murder."
- Still the deaths continue. On March 25th. 2002 9News.com
- part of K*USA TV in Denver, reported that:
- "Denver car dealer Kent Rickenbaugh, his wife, Caroline,
and their son Bart were killed Sunday in a plane crash near Centennial
Airport. Pilot Dr. Steven Mostow also died. Dr. Mostow, 63, was one of
the country's leading infectious disease experts and was Associate Dean
at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Mostow was a crusader
for better health, an early advocate for widespread flu vaccinations and
more recently an expert on the threat of bioterrorism. The plane was headed
for Centennial Airport from Gunnison Airport when Dr. Mostow reported engine
trouble around 4:30 p.m., Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jerry
Snyder said. National Transportation Safety Board investigators said "Weather
did not appear to be a factor in the crash",
- Back to England, and on March 27th. The Times carried
an obituary for yet another leading microbiologist, stating that:
- "David Wynn-Williams, an award-winning microbiologist
died when he was struck by a vehicle while out jogging. In 2000 he was
appointed leader of the Antarctic Astrobiology Project, which explores
the effects of environmental stress at the limits of life on Earth. Wynn-Williams
had assessed the capability of microbes to adapt to environmental extremes,
including the bombardment of ultraviolet rays and global warming. This
drew Wynn-Williams into collaboration with the Nasa Ames Research Centre,
the Johnson Space Centre and Lunar & Planetary Institute, Houston,
and Montana State University. A man of boundless physical as well as intellectual
energy, Wynn-Williams generated a constant flow of ideas, which entranced
both his contemporaries and the young. He was killed in a road accident
while out jogging near his Cambridge home."
- So far then, twelve dead scientists, at least eight or
nine of whom appear to have died in "unusual" circumstances.
Prior to these deaths, on October 4th, a commercial jetliner travelling
from Israel to Novosibirsk, Siberia was shot down over the Black Sea by
an "errant" Ukrainian surface-to-air missile, killing all on
board. The missile was over 100 miles off-course. According to several
press reports, the plane is believed by many in Israel to have had as many
as five passengers on board who were microbiologists. Both Israel and Novosibirsk
are homes for cutting-edge microbiological research. Novosibirsk is known
as the scientific capital of Siberia, and home to over 50 research facilities
and 13 full universities for a population of only 2.5 million people.
- At the time of the Black Sea crash, Israeli journalists
reported that three Israeli microbiologists had, on November 24th, been
on board a Swissair flight from Berlin to Zurich that crashed on its landing
approach. Of the 33 persons on board, 24 were killed, including the head
of the haematology department at Israel's Ichilov Hospital, and the directors
of the Tel Aviv Public Health Department and the Hebrew University School
of Medicine. They were the only Israelis on the flight. The names of those
killed, as reported in a subsequent Israeli news story, were Avishai Berkman,
Amiramp Eldor and Yaacov Matzner.
- In light of the deaths of these microbiologists, it is
interesting to take a look at a similar set of circumstances that occurred
fourteen years ago in the United Kingdom. Once again it involves the deaths
of a number of scientists, some in "unusual" circumstances. The
report below was taken from The Independent newspaper of August 26, 1988.
- "The police said it was suicide, and no doubt they
were right. Ex-Brigadier Peter Ferry, a marketing manager at Marconi's
Command and Control Systems centre at Frimley, Surrey, had apparently killed
himself by inserting power main electric wires into his mouth and then
turning on the power.
- The method chosen was perhaps marginally more grisly
than in the case of several other Marconi employees. In 1986, for example,
Ashad Sharif, a computer analyst who worked for Marconi Defence Systems
in Stanmore, Middlesex, tied one end of a rope around his neck, another
to a tree, and put his car into gear. Two months earlier, the body of Vimal
Dajibhai, a software engineer responsible for checking the guidance systems
of Tigerfish torpedos for Marconi Underwater Systems, was found under Clifton
suspension bridge at Bristol.
- In March 1987, David Sands, a project manager working
on secret satellite radar at Marconi's sister company Easams, in Camberley,
drove up a slip road on his way to work and into a cafe at an estimated
80mph. A year later, Trevor Knight, a computer engineer at Marconi's space
and defence base in Stanmore, died in his fume-filled car at his home in
Hertfordshire. Earlier, two other Marconi employees, Victor Moore, a design
engineer, and Roger Hill, a draughtsman, had killed themselves, both seemingly
as a result of work pressures.
- There have been at least half a dozen more untoward deaths
among defence scientists and others working in the defence field. Marconi
is not alone, but it is well in the lead. The best efforts of investigative
journalists have failed to establish a link either between the various
deaths or between the deaths of the Marconi staff and the Ministry of Defence
inquiry, now two years old, into some £3billion worth of defence
contracts awarded to GEC-Marconi. "
- --The Independent August 26, 1988.
- Interestingly, Marconi was recently declared virtually
bankrupt after it's shares fell below "junk" status on the UK
stock exchange. Both the chairman and C.E.O. resigned and a great many
employees have lost their jobs and pensions as the share price fell from
a twelve month high of £4:45 to only 5 pence. Marconi, once a major
player in the defence industry had, over the last few years, moved into
the Telecoms sector and suffered when the downturn in technology and telecom
stocks came along last year. A company once worth billions is now worthless,
a situation that is somewhat similar to Enron.
- Whether these recent deaths are purely coincidence or
part of some sinister plot, the reasons for which can only be guessed at,
remains unclear. What is clear though, is that being a scientist these
days can be a dangerous occupation.
- Copyright Ian Gurney. 2002.