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Chemical warfare during the Cold War

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2006 - Autumn


In a work of fiction, a Yale psychiatrist describes how the Army tested agents for use in war.

Pfc. Don Wheatland sits on his bed babbling, pulse racing, occasionally swatting imaginary flies. Capt. Martin Baker, M.D., knows what has gone wrong. The soldier is a guinea pig in a test of VX; a single drop of this lethal neurotoxin can kill a man in 15 minutes by overstimulating the nervous system. The year is 1961, and the soldier is one of the “volunteers” undergoing tests of potential chemical warfare agents at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. Wheatland has been vomiting, and an Army medical officer has been treating the soldier by injecting him with atropine—too much, as it turns out. The private is delirious from atropine poisoning.

But the real problem will not emerge until later, when medical officer Baker gets a 10 p.m. phone call: “Wheatland has disappeared.”

This scene comes from Men and Poisons: The Edgewood Volunteers and the Army Chemical Warfare Research Program, a fictionalized account of life at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland by Malcolm Baker Bowers Jr., M.D., HS ’65 (Baker in the book). Bowers, now professor emeritus of psychiatry, spent three years as a medical officer at Edgewood beginning in 1959. Bowers said he was inspired to write and self-publish the book to provide an account of chemical warfare research of the era. About 650 men were exposed to these nerve agents as part of Army research at Edgewood, according to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense.

In one scene that illustrates the vision of chemical warfare held at the time, a general tells the research staff: “Think of it: LSD-impregnated toilet paper gets delivered to the Kremlin.”

In an interview at his office at 300 George Street, where he still sees patients, Bowers described his commanding officer, who tested the poisons on himself first. “His approach to the feasibility of testing was to insist that he take at least twice the dose proposed for a volunteer.”

Looking back, Bowers was struck by the lack of informed consent in that era. The 30 soldiers recruited for monthlong rotations had no idea what they were getting into, said Bowers, who provided them with medical care. “They came to get a break from their bases and to check out the infamous bars along the harbor in Baltimore.”

Before being exposed to nerve gases and hallucinogens, the soldiers got only brief verbal explanations of what was to happen. They did not really consent, either. They signed no forms and, Bowers noted, “There was no question that they would participate.”

Bowers recounted in his book how a seemingly healthy volunteer given LSD became psychotic and had to be sent to a psychiatric hospital. He was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Bowers said that seeing such catastrophic drug reactions sparked his interest in how drugs can trigger psychiatric illness—the subject of another self-published book, Abetting Madness: The Role of Illicit and Prescribed Drugs in Promoting Psychotic and Manic Disorders.

Bowers’ account rings true to his colleague George K. Aghajanian, M.D. ’58, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology, who served in the Army at Edgewood beginning a year after Bowers left. “It’s not fiction,” he said, “Just the names are fictional.”

Before Bowers and Aghajanian arrived at Edgewood, the work there had led to a therapeutic breakthrough: the first cancer chemotherapy agent. Two Yale pharmacologists, Louis S. Goodman, M.D., and Alfred Gilman, Ph.D., showed that the World War I gas nitrogen mustard could shrink lymphatic tumors. Their study was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1946.

As for the soldier on whom Wheatland was based, he was found in New York City two days after he disappeared, when he asked a police officer what city he was in. The resulting newspaper headlines embarrassed the Army, but the soldier recovered.