Mention that you're a biologist at a party, and half the people in the room will begin to yawn. The other half will be intrigued, and someone will say that they always wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. Go on to tell them that you study seabirds on tropical isles, and visions of paradise will dance in their heads. The mystique, if not the money, holds a strong allure.
What I don't tell them about is the dark side of biology--the way things really work in the natural world. Most partygoers don't want to hear about the role that rats, mites, ticks, lice, seabirds and mosquitoes play in the health of marine ecosystems and humans. In fact, when I started my career 30 years ago, the notion that birds can transmit disease to people came as a surprise to me as well, notwithstanding my mother's mantra: "Don't touch dead birds!"
It was only after I fell ill with a tick-induced fever on Laysan Island, in northwestern Hawaii, that I wondered what those birds had been scratching as I focused on their calls and courtship antics, their flight and feeding behaviors. Soft-bodied bird ticks look like grains of coral sand. Mobile and heat-seeking, they are hard to detect as they work their way under loose clothing to bite one's skin. Reactions among people vary from nonchalant scratching to intolerable itching. I seemed especially sensitive. My tick bites, soon bloody lymph pustules, itched fiendishly and looked horrible.
It slowly dawned on me that perhaps the bites on my swollen ankles were the cause of my 101-degree fever. My appetite fell off and my dreams grew restless. In one, I was bicycling in a valley surrounded by green cliffs when, all of a sudden, my bike slipped into the path of an oncoming four-wheel-drive pickup. I sensed the end was near, but the wheels swerved away at the last second. I knelt and blessed myself. The following night I dreamed of Bob Hope, the next night Bruce Willis. God save me, this fever was too much. After several days the aching in my joints and listlessness passed, and I returned to my research.
In the following days, I thought more about the source of my illness. It had been so strange, unlike anything I had felt before. And then suddenly I remembered: When I first began surveying seabirds, I'd heard a vague rumor about the Pacific Project, a government program that supposedly involved germ-warfare research in the remote reaches of the ocean. Was it possible that I had been touched by the residue of some cloak-and-dagger experiment?
Over time, I became convinced that the Pacific Project wasn't responsible for my sickness; evidently I had caught a nasty case of Laysan fever, a tick-borne malady lacking any government connection. Nevertheless, I was now bitten by another kind of bug: What was the Pacific Project really all about?
In 1998, several years after I recovered, my colleague Rick Steiner from the University of Alaska Anchorage and I began to follow a paper trail with the help of a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense. I eventually learned that the Pacific Project was a Cold War-era initiative, known only to those with the highest security clearances. No one was talking. The government's responses were a shell game.
I was finally told by the aptly named Norman Covert, the command historian at Fort Detrick, Md., that a thorough review of all Pacific Project reports had been conducted in order to comply with an executive order from President Nixon in 1969 outlawing offensive biowarfare research. But after that review, the material dealing with the development and use of biological weapons was mostly destroyed.
The records destroyed? Now my suspicions were really aroused. What happened out there 40 years ago? A new fever gripped me.
An American scientist in "defense biology" was once asked what he was looking for, to which he sardonically replied: "A cure for metabolism."
It is a gruesome thought stretching back hundreds of years. Biological warfare may have begun when the Tartars catapulted flea-bitten corpses infected with bubonic plague over Genoese fortifications and stoked the Black Death epidemic that decimated Europe in the 14th century. During World War I, Germany used livestock diseases against other nations. In World War II, Japan delivered the bubonic plague to China via airdrops of insects.
Still, in the '50s, chemical and biological weapons capabilities were limited for a variety of reasons, the biggest being gaps in predictability. With the Cold War paranoia of the early '60s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara tried to fix that. The result was Project 112--so-called because at the time 112 chemical and biological weapons programs were put under investigation. The Pacific Project was one of them.