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The case of the CIA and butter clam toxin

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2000 - Fall / 2001 - Winter


“While much of America is viewing the Senate hearings on the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency with some dismay,” Yale Medicine  reported in its Fall 1975 issue, “J. Murdoch Ritchie, Ph.D., D.Sc., Eugene Higgins Professor of Pharmacology, is watching them with considerable concern.

“The object of Dr. Ritchie’s concern is a supply of the poison, saxitoxin, which the agency kept in violation of a Presidential order in 1969 to halt the development of biological and chemical weapons, and to destroy existing stockpiles. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Senator Frank Church, learned this summer that a middle-level official of the CIA had failed to destroy supplies of saxitoxin and cobra venom.

“Saxitoxin, which is derived from tissues of butter clams and other shellfish, was developed by the CIA for various possible covert activities. In testimony that seems more likely from a James Bond novel than a Senate hearing, one source claimed that the agency considered using the poison in suicide pills so that u.s. agents could kill themselves if they were caught by enemy agents. … According to Dr. Ritchie, the amount of saxitoxin retained by the CIA, if properly administered, could kill up to 5,000 persons.”

The article went on to say that Ritchie had asked the agency and the Senate Committee to prevent the destruction of the shellfish toxin on the ground that it could be “extremely valuable for medical research on diseases of the nervous system and for our understanding of how the nervous system normally works.”

“The toxin,” he wrote in a letter to Church, “reacts in extremely small concentrations with a critical component of the nerve membrane, to block conduction in nerves. It can, therefore, be used to study the functional integrity of the nervous system.”


Asked about the outcome of the case, Ritchie (who continues to conduct research in the Department of Pharmacology as the Eugene Higgins Professor) told the rest of the story in a letter to Yale Medicine in September. “In the end the toxin was not destroyed,” he wrote. “At first, it was suggested that I take charge of the CIA’s saxitoxin, with the idea that I would be responsible for its appropriate distribution to scientists who asked for it. However, I realized that there would be very many applicants for the toxin, which was in somewhat limited supply. So I would be forced to ration it, or even deny some applications, and would surely make enemies. I therefore declined the offer but strongly suggested it be held by the NIH, a recommendation that was indeed accepted.

“My work did not come up with any method of counteracting the effects of the poison saxitoxin or the development of new kinds of anesthetics—neither has anyone else’s. It did, however, account for the main defect in multiple sclerosis, which is the inability of nerves that have demyelinated to conduct nerve impulses.” Nerve conduction fails and paralysis ensues.

“Unfortunately, the ultimate cause of the demyelination leading to MS remains unknown.”

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