Although they had experimented on animals during and after World War II, Camp Detrick scientists were still unsure of the effects of biological agents on human beings. Operation Whitecoat aimed to solve that problem by providing volunteers to enable the military to test the effects of a range of disease agents on human subjects.
Ideal Test Subjects
The first task for the scientists was to find people willing to be infected by pathogens that could make them very sick. They found them in the followers of the Seventh-day Adventist faith. Although willing to serve their country when drafted, the Adventists refused to bear arms. As a result many of them became medics. Now the U.S. was offering recruits an opportunity to help in a different manner: to volunteer for biological tests as a way of satisfying their military obligations. When contacted in late 1954, the Adventist hierarchy readily agreed to this plan. For Camp Detrick scientists, church members were a model test population, since most of them were in excellent health and they neither drank, smoked, nor used caffeine. From the perspective of the volunteers, the tests gave them a way to fulfill their patriotic duty while remaining true to their beliefs. And there was another factor: participation in these tests meant avoiding possibly more hazardous service abroad. For example, one participant, Carl Walker, had orders for his deployment to Laos reversed when he volunteered for Operation Whitecoat. An officer told him, “You guys are worth a lot more to your country as guinea pigs than as cannon fodder.”
The Eight Ball
Many of the Adventists were recruited at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, a training center for medics. The first volunteers were sent to Camp Detrick, where biological tests began in late January 1955. The site for these experiments was a million-liter sphere called “the Eight Ball” that looked to one recruit like an enormous grapefruit. After having entered the Eight Ball, subjects were placed in structures resembling telephone booths that contained rubber hoses leading to face masks. They put the masks on, and then breathed in the current contents of the Eight Ball — perhaps air or another harmless substance, or perhaps aerosols that contained pathogens that caused such diseases as tularemia or Q fever. Many tests involved Q fever, a disease first observed in the 1930s that caused intense fever but was rarely fatal. One recruit recalled that he had “never been any sicker,” another’s temperature reached 106° F, and a third’s gums swelled to the point he “could no longer see my teeth.” Once the disease appeared, recruits were given antibiotics, and almost all made a quick and complete recovery.
Dugway and Beyond
After the success of its first experiments, the decision was made to attempt an outdoor release of Q fever bacteria. Thirty recruits traveled to the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and on the evening of July 12, 1955, they were lined up across a half mile of desert next to cages of monkeys and guinea pigs. Located slightly more than 3,000 feet away, several generators filled with pathogens began spraying an infectious mist into the night air. The volunteers were told to breathe normally, and within a few minutes the mist was upon them. Some had been vaccinated against Q fever and never got sick; others became ill and ended up in bed for days. From the military’s perspective, the Dugway field test proved that under the right meteorological conditions, biological weapons would work. The human experiments continued for almost 20 years, ending in 1973. All told about 2,200 Adventists participated in Operation Whitecoat, and to this day many remain proud of their service, which resulted in the development of several vaccines and, presumably, the generation of much information on how biological weapons work in the field. For its part, the Army holds up Operation Whitecoat as a model of informed consent in testing on humans. The Army also maintains there were almost “no adverse health effect[s]” for the recruits, a view disputed by some volunteers. The truth may never be known; follow-up questionnaires were sent to fewer than half of the participants in Operation Whitecoat.