For 25 years, the government’s involvement in biological warfare testing — and its use of civilians as unwitting guinea pigs — remained top-secret. It’s a secret that likely would’ve gone on indefinitely if not for the efforts of a savvy Newsweek reporter named Drew Fetherston. In November 1976, Fetherston exposed a number of biological tests performed in major cities by the Army and the CIA. Using his research, the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered the bacteria spraying that had occurred in its streets in 1950.
Thanks to a ‘Top Secret’ document called “Special Report No. 142: Biological Warfare Trials at San Francisco, California, 20-27 September 1950”, we now know that from September 20-27 of 1950, the U.S. Army, using the unsuspecting people of San Francisco as human guinea pigs, engages in “simulated” germ warfare in San Francisco and the Pentagon. Over a few days, a Navy vessel used giant hoses to spray a fog of two kinds of bacteria, Serratia marcescens and Bacillus globigii out into the fog, where they disappeared and spread over the city.
This confidential government reporten in 1951 — “Special Report No. 142: Biological Warfare Trials at San Francisco, California, 20-27 September 1950” — maps out the details of the city’s top-secret bacteria bombing. Through the tests, officials sought to accomplish three objectives: to study the “offensive possibilities of attacking a seaport city with a biological warfare aerosol,” to highlight the vulnerability of the country’s defense against such attacks, and to gain data on how bacteria affected a population.
San Francisco residents’ safety was wholly brushed over in the report, which promptly concluded “it’s entirely feasible to attack a seaport city with [biological warfare] aerosol.”
San Francisco’s fog is famous, especially in the summer, when weather conditions combine to create the characteristic cooling blanket that sits over the Bay Area.
But one fact many may not know about San Francisco’s fog is that in 1950, the US military conducted a test to see whether it could be used to help spread a biological weapon in a “simulated germ-warfare attack.” This was just the start of many such tests around the country that would go on in secret for years.
The test was a success, as Rebecca Kreston explains over at Discover Magazine, and “one of the largest human experiments in history.”
But, as she writes, it was also “one of the largest offenses of the Nuremberg Code since its inception.”
The code stipulates that “voluntary, informed consent” is required for research participants, and that experiments that might lead to death or disabling injury are unacceptable.
The unsuspecting residents of San Francisco certainly could not consent to the military’s germ-warfare test, and there’s good evidence that it could have caused the death of at least one resident of the city, Edward Nevin, hospitalized 10 others, and made hundreds more sick.
This is a crazy story; one that seems like it must be a conspiracy theory. An internet search will reveal plenty of misinformation and unbelievable conjecture about these experiments. But the core of this incredible tale is documented and true.
‘A successful biological warfare attack’
On the 20th of September 1950, just three days after the 49ers made their NFL debut, the U.S. Army was deployed to San Francisco and began secretly showering the city with bacteria. Over a course of eight days, a ship puttered along the shoreline of the bay, releasing massive clouds of two different pathogens — both of which were supposedly non-pathogenic, yet “realistic simulants that might be used in an attack.” In total, six “experimental warfare attacks” were carried out: four with Bacillus globigii, and two with Serratia marcescens.
“It was noted that a successful BW [biological warfare] attack on this area can be launched from the sea, and that effective dosages can be produced over relatively large areas,” concluded a later-declassified military report, cited by the Wall Street Journal.
Successful indeed, according to Leonard Cole, the director of the Terror Medicine and Security Program at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. His book, “Clouds of Secrecy,” documents the military’s secret bioweapon tests over populated areas. Cole wrote:
Nearly all of San Francisco received 500 particle minutes per liter. In other words, nearly every one of the 800,000 people in San Francisco exposed to the cloud at normal breathing rate (10 liters per minute) inhaled 5,000 or more particles per minute during the several hours that they remained airborne.
Monitoring devices were situated throughout the city in order to test the extent of infection. Many residents become ill with pneumonia-like symptoms.
This was among the first but far from the last of these sorts of tests. Over the next 20 years, the military would conduct 239 “germ-warfare” tests over populated areas, according to news reports from the 1970s (after the secret tests had been revealed) in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Associated Press, and other publications (via Lexis-Nexis), and also detailed in congressional testimony from the 1970s.
These tests included the large-scale releases of bacteria in the New York City subway system, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and in National Airport just outside Washington, DC.
In a 1994 congressional testimony, Cole said that none of this had been revealed to the public until a 1976 newspaper story revealed the story of a few of the first experiments — though at least a Senate subcommittee had heard testimony about experiments in New York City in 1975, according to a 1995 Newsday report.
A mysterious death
When Edward Nevin III, the grandson of the Edward Nevin who died in 1950, read about one of those early tests in San Francisco, he connected the story to his grandfather’s death from a mysterious bacterial infection. He began to try to convince the government to reveal more data about these experiments. In 1977, they released a report detailing more of that activity.
In 1950, the first Edward Nevin had been recovering from a prostate surgery when he suddenly fell ill with a severe urinary-tract infection containing Serratia marcescens, the theoretically harmless bacterium that’s known for turning bread red in color. The bacteria had reportedly never been found in the hospital before and was rare in the Bay Area (and in California in general).
Before researchers could hypothesize the bacteria’s root cause, ten more patients were admitted with the same infection. Doctors were baffled: how could have this microbe presented itself?
The bacteria spread to Nevin’s heart and he died a few weeks later.
Another 10 patients showed up in the hospital over the next few months, all with pneumonia symptoms and the odd presence of Serratia marcescens. They all recovered.
For nearly thirty years, the incident remained a secret — until Edward Nevin’s grandson set out to bring about justice. Edward Nevin III, a young lawyer in San Francisco, was waiting for a train in nearby Berkeley when he read the news with the groundbreaking story from Drew Fetherston. When he skimmed the name of the man who’d died from the bacteria — Edward Nevin — he reeled in shock. Good heavens, he muttered, that’s my grandfather!
Growing up, he’d always been told that his father’s father had died from kidney disease; now that he knew the bitter truth, he felt a need to exact revenge in the form of justice.
Nevin wrote the government, demanding access to case’s related documents; his request was denied. Though the Freedom of Information Act had just been enacted, the government maintained that all files were classified — despite the fact the the media had already exposed the incident. In turn, Nevin sued the government to the tune of $11 million.
“Our motive [is] to obtain information,” he told a group of reporters who’d asked about the high amount, “would you fellows have paid attention if the claim were for only a few thousand?”
The government tried to dismiss the case on the grounds that they were immune from lawsuits involving “basic policy,” but the request was denied. Samuel Conti, a federal judge, was appointed to preside over the trial, and a date was set for mid-1977.
In light of this news, the government decided it was best to relinquish some of its information. In February 1977, an extensive history — “U.S. Army Activity in the U.S. Biological Warfare Program, 1942-1977” — was released, chronicling the country’s involvement in open-air testing for the first time in history.
From March to May of 1977, a series of hearings commenced in the Senate’s subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research. Medical experts, military leaders, and politicians ferociously debated whether or not Serratia marcescens — the bacteria that killed Nevin — was harmful. George H. Connell, the assistant to the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), was especially vocal about its dangers:
“There is no such thing as a microorganism that cannot cause trouble. If you get the right concentration at the right place, at the right time, and in the right person, something is going to happen.”
“An increase in the number of Serratia marcescens,” added an unnamed microbiology professor, “can almost certainly cause disease in a healthy person…and serious disease in sick people.”
What ensued was a series of terrifying revelations: for two decades, the United States government had intentionally doused 293 populated areas with bacteria. They’d done this with secrecy. They’d done this without informing citizens of potentially dangerous exposure. They’d done this without taking precautions to protect the public’s health and safety, and with no medical follow-up.
Meanwhile, Nevin III’s trial was postponed or rescheduled a half dozen times from 1977-1980. By the time a trial was set in stone for March 16, 1981, he’d already spent some $60,000 on legal fees, and was mentally and emotionally drained.
Nonetheless, he found solace in the case’s stipulatons: to win, all he’d have to do is show that there was a “probability” — or greater than a 50% chance — that the Army’s germs were responsible for his grandfather’s demise. And as a lawyer, he’d have the opportunity to defend his own family in court.
As the trial began, the evidence seemed to be overwhelmingly in Nevin III’s favor: on September 26th and 27th, the government had sprayed the city with Serratia marcescens; on September 29th, Serratia marcescens showed up in his grandfather’s system — and directly led to his death.
“We’ve been nothing but loyal to this country,” Nevin told the Judge Conti in his opening statement. “and we feel betrayed.”
In 2005, the FDA stated that “Serratia marcescens bacteria … can cause serious, life-threatening illness in patients with compromised immune systems.” The bacteria has shown up in a few other Bay Area health crises since the 1950s, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, leading to some speculation that the original spraying could have established a new microbial population in the area.
His argument was threefold: the bacteria sprayed by the government directly caused his grandfather’s death; the Army used Serratia marcescens despite inadequate testing; and, since they’d sprayed it without consent, it had been “an act of negligence.” He questioned the legality of these actions:
“On what basis of law does the U.S. government of the United States justify the dispersion of a large collection of bacteria over the civilian population in an experiment…without informed consent?”
John Kern, the sharp, respected attorney representing the government, denied all of these allegations. The Serratia marcescens that killed Nevin and the Serratia marcescens released by the Army were two entirely different strains, he maintained; it was mere coincidence that the hospital had an outbreak around the same time.
Incredibly, Kern also attested that the Army needed no permission to spray the public without consent or knowledge. The Federal Torts Claims Act, established in 1946, gave the public the right to sue the Federal government — but it came with limitations. Among them, a vaguely-worded “discretionary function” made the feds immune to suits in which they were “performing appropriately under policy.” The dousing of civilians in bacteria, contended Kern, qualified as such.
Kern then launched into a theatrical denial of Serratia marcescens’ harmful effects. “Every atom in this pen could decide right now to rise up about six inches and turn around 180 degrees,” he emphatically stated, with his pen thrusted in the air. That, he concluded, would be about as likely to happen as the bacteria killing someone. He continued, citing a series of Fort Detrick tests in the 1940s in which “volunteers” were exposed to millions of Serratia marcescens organisms and suffered only “some coughing, redness of the eye, and a fever,” with all symptoms subsiding after a few days.
One of Kern’s witnesses, a doctor for the biological warfare unit at Fort Detrick, agreed. In possibly the most callous statement of the day, he looked Nevin III in the eyes, and delivered his opinion: “The strain [wasn’t] pathogenic,” he said, “[and] I would still spray SF again today.”
Dr. Wheat, the Stanford physician who’d investigated Nevin’s death in 1951, testified to a different tune.
“No similar organisms had ever been isolated in the hospital laboratory…then over a relatively short period of time, there were a number of cases,” he told the judge. “It’s very difficult for me to escape the conclusion that there is at least some probability, some causal effect [that the cases are related].”
Debates on the bacteria’s safety and the cause of Nevin’s death continued in this way for several hours, each side presenting a slew of medical “experts.” The government’s legal team maintained that the odds of Nevin’s death being linked to the Army’s bacteria spray were “one in a hundred;” Nevin III’s witnesses held the belief that the events were inseparably connected.
When it came time to cross-examine military officials, the case suddenly took a jarring turn.
As General William Creasy, commander of the United States’ biological warfare unit, stepped to the stand, it became clear that presiding judge Conti was leaning toward the defense of the military. “When the government trotted out a witness in uniform,” noted one San Francisco Examiner court reporter, “it was all over.” After telling Nevin III that he was “wasting [his] time,” the General proceeded to defend the ethics of spraying people without their knowledge:
“I would find it completely impossible to conduct such a test trying to obtain informed consent. I could not have hoped to prevent panic in the uninformed world in which we live in telling them that we were going to spread non-pathogenic particles over their community; 99 percent of the people wouldn’t know what pathogenic meant.”
During the cross-examination, Judge Conti continually denied Nevin III’s reasoning, and even berated him for his lack of respect toward military officials. After several interruptions, Judge Conti altogether halted the questioning and called a recess. Out in the hallway, a belligerent General Creasy unsuccessfully challenged Nevin III to a fistfight.
Nevin III’s legal opponents were simply too powerful: he was swimming upstream and flailing.
When Judge Conti’s verdict was handed down on May 20, 1981, it surprised no one: the case was ruled in favor of the government.
The Army had been entitled to spray the population without consent, concluded Conti, under the “discretionary function exception” in the Federal Tort Claims Act. Despite a lack of convincing evidence, Conti also declared that the Army had skillfully chosen its bacteria — and that it was not, in fact, harmless.
For Nevin III, whose grandfather had died from the organisms, this was not easy to swallow. He appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals did not overturn the verdict. He appealed again — this time to the Supreme Court — and received a similar response.
For Nevin III, justice was not served.
The year following the 1950 germ warfare test in San Francisco, a team of Stanford University researchers dug into the case; led by Dr. Richard Wheat, they published an article in the American Medical Association’s Archives of Internal Medicine exploring the facts: 11 patients infected over 6 months, aged 29-78, all with urinary tract infections caused by Serratia marcescens.
Despite the best efforts of some of the nation’s leading scientists, no source could be identified. Historically, Serratia marcescens had no record in San Francisco — or California, for that matter.
The medical paper did not go unnoticed: when the government read it and realized that they’d caused a bacterial outbreak, they reeled to cover their tracks.
In August 1952, a secret, four-person investigation was ordered by Fort Detrick commander, General William Creasy to reassess the pathogenic nature of Serratia marcescens. In a two-page report, the investigators admitted that the bacteria was NOT an “ideal stimulant,” and mused that the likelihood it had killed Nevin was considerable. Despite this, they proceeded to justify its continued use in biological tests:
“On the basis of our study, we conclude that Serratia marcescens is so rarely a cause of illness, and the illness resulting is predominantly so trivial, that its use as a simulant should be continued, even over populated areas.”
Throughout the report, investigators showed little remorse for the infected civilians. General Creasy was equally unphased: in a follow-up with Army officials, he promised to consult with the U.S. Public Health Service regarding the safety of Serratia marcescens — but he never did.
And all the while, the public remained completely in the dark about what was going on.