YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Taking a Germ Bullet

From 1954 to 1973 during Operation Whitecoat, the Army exposed hundreds of Seventh-day Adventists to diseases to learn about possible bioweaponry.


WASHINGTON — Dressed in battle fatigues and wrapped in an Army blanket, Lloyd Long slept on the sand in the barren Utah desert. Monkeys and guinea pigs sat placidly in cages beside him. A siren blared, telling Long to wake up and climb onto a stool. He faced into the wind and breathed the night air.

Two weeks later, the 18-year-old soldier fell as sick as he'd ever been. Fever. Headache. Blurred vision. The desert wind had carried a waft of the debilitating disease known as Q fever, unleashed by Army scientists.

And Long, a human guinea pig by his own consent, had helped prove that Americans were vulnerable to a new type of weapon: the germ.

That was more than 46 years ago. Long was part of Operation Whitecoat, a set of 153 Army tests from 1954 to 1973 that mark an extraordinary chapter in medical research history, one that probably could not be repeated today. The Whitecoat experiments exposed hundreds of healthy young men to debilitating diseases that might be used in biological warfare. And the experiments were conducted on soldiers recruited from a single religious group: the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Whitecoat volunteers--A photo caption in the A Section on Monday misidentified five former Operation Whitecoat volunteers. They are, front to back, Gary Swanson, Eugene Reid, Floyd Steck, Jonah Kumalae and W. Dean Rogers.
PHOTO: (no caption)

Now the Whitecoats, who have received little public attention over the years, are being lauded as heroes. By offering the first details of how biological weapons move through the environment and affect the human body, their experiments laid out many of the scientific insights that officials need as they boost U.S. defenses against bioterrorism and investigate the anthrax attacks that have killed at least four Americans.

"I firmly believe that if those experiments had not shown our vulnerability to biological warfare, there would be no biological defense program today," said Col. Arthur Anderson, an Army immunologist. "As a result, the services provided during this outbreak of anthrax would be completely in the Dark Age."

But ethical concerns probably would rule out Operation Whitecoat today, because the experiments would put volunteers at undue risk, said Jonathan Moreno, a University of Virginia bioethics researcher.

Should those standards now be relaxed?

"Before Sept. 11, would we have found these tests more objectionable than we do now? I think we would," Moreno said. "We might be willing to live with more ambiguities and moral compromises now, in the harsh realities of the 21st century."

No test subjects died during Operation Whitecoat, Army officials say. The Army only now is conducting a study of possible long-term effects on those exposed, asking the 1,000 or so volunteers who could be located to fill out health questionnaires.

Like today, the nation was trying to grapple with the new and frightening threat of biological warfare at the time Operation Whitecoat was created.

After World War II, Americans learned that Japan had conducted extensive germ attacks and experiments on humans, mostly in Japanese-occupied areas of China. By some accounts, more than 10,000 people were infected.

But to U.S. scientists, biowarfare was an unproven threat. Once released, biological agents seemed hard to control in battle. And it was unclear how many casualties might result. Little was known about the number of germs it took to harm someone, and whether they could be released broadly, through an aerosol.

"We needed to fully understand the nature of aerosols and infectivity in man," said William C. Patrick III, a former official in the U.S. bioweapon program. "You could only get so much information from an animal model."

And so, in 1954, the Army approached Adventist leaders about forming a partnership.

Adventists had a special niche in the armed forces. Following the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," many sought status as conscientious objectors and became medics. That often put them on the battlefield, but in life-saving roles.

Army scientists thought the well-educated Adventists, with their natural interest in health matters, would make good test subjects. Moreover, Adventists--at least those who followed church rules--did not smoke, or drink alcohol or coffee.

"They were a cleaner piece of paper on which to work an experiment," said Richard O. Stenbakken, who supervises Adventist clergy in the armed forces. When testing an experimental drug or disease agent, "you didn't have to ask if their reaction was because they were drunk as a skunk on Saturday night."

In all, more than 2,100 young Adventist soldiers made the trip from Ft. Sam Houston in Texas, where the Army conducted medic training, to serve their tours of duty at the Army's biological warfare program at Ft. Detrick, Md. Many would have ended up in Korea or Vietnam. Once at Ft. Detrick, they were expected to volunteer for at least one experiment while holding clerical, motor pool or other military jobs. But some took part in more than one and a few participated in none.

Los Angeles Times Articles