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Cancer Warfare

National Cancer Institute and the Fort Detrick Link

Richard Hatch

Covert Action Information Bulletin Number 39 (Winter 1991-92)

Those who would increase the potency of biological weapons must search for improved methods o f mass production of organisms, factors which will enhance the virulence, ways to prolong the storage life of living agents, ways to improve aerosol stability, and methods of producing variant organisms by recombination or by other means.

– Col. William D. Tagertt, former commander of the Army’s medical unit at Fort Detrick 1

In 1969, President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to offensive biological warfare (BW) research and weapons stockpiling by the United States. The U.S. Army destroyed its toxins, viruses, and bacteria with heat and disinfectants by May 1972; the disposal of the scientific personnel was not so simple. Some of these biowarriors went to the CIA.2 Others quickly found new support from the National Cancer Institute, particularly in its Virus Cancer Program (VCP).3 The NCI funded and supervised some of the same scientists, universities, and contracting corporations—ostensibly for cancer research—which had conducted biological warfare research. Some of these medical research contracts ran simultaneously with the U.S. biological warfare program. When the military work ended, the civilian programs continued to expand on the same critical areas outlined by Colonel Tigertt.

The NCI’s Viral Cancer Program—a highly politicized public relations effort—was launched in 1971 with great fanfare as part of Nixon’s War on Cancer. The stated aim of the program was to organize experiments aimed at finding cancer-causing viruses.

Apparently this agenda was compatible with the incorporation into various units of the VCP of possibly dozens of former U.S. BW researchers who continued to study topics with potential military application. Potential cancer-causing viruses were collected, grown in huge amounts, and distributed through the yep; thousands of animals were infected experimentally, and the aerosol distribution of carcinogenic viruses was studied.

Two former BW facilities would play a large part in VCP. The U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland had been the “parent research and pilot plant center for biological warfare.”4 During the early 1960s, the CIA paid the facility $100,000 a year for BW and chemical agents and their delivery systems. In Oakland, California, the Naval Biosciences Laboratory was involved in early experiments with the plague and collaborated in massive open-air tests of biological warfare “simulants” in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s. Former biological warfare specialists from both of these centers were deeply involved in all aspects of the VCP.

The University-Military Complex

Reflecting a common pattern of cooperation, much of the military-related research took place at institutions connected with or directly part of U..S. universities. The University of California is well known for its role in managing the two main U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. Less well-known is the fact that UC Berkeley also helps manage the Naval Biosciences Laboratory (NBL) – earlier called the Naval Biological Laboratory. This connection became central to the VCP and continued after the ban on offensive BW work.

Well before President Nixon ordered the conversion of the U.S. Army BW center at Fort Detrick to civilian uses in 1971, this military facility was cooperating closely with UC.

From 1953 to 1968, the University of California, while managing the NBL, now at the Naval Supply Center, also had BW contracts with the U.S. Army.5 After U.S treaty obligations would have prevented open research on mass production of dangerous viruses without a medical “cover”; the VCP provided an ideal excuse to study “scale-up” problems.6

One of the first new priorities of the Fort Detrick facility after the ban was “the large scale production of oncogenic [cancer-causing] and suspected oncogenic viruses.”7 Within a year, the NCI began mass production and within one fifteen month period ending in June 1977, the VCP produced 60,000 liters of cancer-causing and immunosuppressive viruses.

Throughout the 1970s, U.S. “defensive” BW efforts were increasingly aimed at the research and development of viral disease agents.8

The “seed stocks” for this massive production of viruses came from the Cell Culture Laboratory (CCL); the CCL was “physically located at the Naval Biosciences Laboratory (NBL)” in Oakland, California.9 Because this laboratory was financed in part by the NCI and linked to UC, it would become, in a clearinghouse and central repository for vast quantities of potentially cancer-causing tissues and the tissues that might contain them. Thus, after the ban, the Naval Biosciences Lab at UC continued experimentation on biological agents, but under the guise of “defensive” research.

The VCP contract ran concurrently with the NBL’s work on bubonic plague, Rift Valley and meningitis. The NBL did other research for the Fort Detrick, before the 1972 ban on offensive work. The NBL also performed “much of the original research into the during World War II.” At some NBL work was “listed only in Pentagon research bulletins.”11

The NBL/Cell Culture Laboratory project was supervised for the VCP by Drs. James Duff and Jack Gruber.12 Duff had been a at Fort Detrick for 12 years joining the NCI. His biography lists research into clostridium botulinum toxins and 13 Botulinum toxins cause botulism food and are among the most toxic substances known. It was during Duff’s tenure at Fort Detrick that the U.S. Army stockpiled botulinum toxin weapons.14 There, too, the intensive study of psittacosis, or “parrot fever,” resulted in the accidental infection of at least 12 workers15 while Duff was working there. After serving for eight years at Fort Detrick, Gruber moved to the NCI. His biography lists work on “arthropod-borne viruses.”16 The U.S. stockpiled BW weapons based on one arthropod-borne virus and studied many others. He soon became Chair of the Program Resources and Logistics Advisory Group of the VCP, where he helped coordinate projects involving production of viroses, provision of test animals and the “biohazard safety pro-gram.”17 In 1984, Gruberbecame head of the Cancer Etiology Division of the NIH.

It’s in the Air

The field of “aerobiology,” or the transmission of disease organisms through the air, is essentially an outgrowth of BW research. The military objective of exposing many people to a biological warfare agent and the ready susceptibility to infection by inhaling these agents make aerosol weapons the most practical form of transmission. The NCI also studied aerosol transmission of viruses intensively.. One such study, FS-57 “Aerosol Properties of Oncogenic Viruses,” was funded at more than $100,000 a year. After the ban on offensive BWresearch, the NCI and the Office of Naval Research jointly sponsored NBL experiments on the “Aerosol Properties of Potentially Oncogenic Viruses.”18 The NCI justified its aerosol research because its scientists often handled suspect cancer viruses in a highly concentrated form. A lab accident could release a mist of virus; NCI needed to understand and anticipate the danger. How the Navy justified its interest is unknown, but if a new cancer-causing BW agent was discovered, it would likely be delivered as an aerosol.

The line between aerosol and biological warfare research was often fine. The NCI project officer and former U.S. Air Force virologist, Dr. Alfred Hellman, worked with Mark Chatigny, a research engineer at NBL and member of the NCI biohazards work group from the NBL.19 Hellman also oversaw the 1971 $100,000 NBL study on the “physical and biological characteristics of viral aerosols..” In 1961, the NBL had done similar rese
arch for Fort Detrick on the “stability and virulence of BW aerosols.”20 Chatigny’s NBL research into aerosol distribution of viruses would continue into the 1980s. Such overlapping of purposes raises serious questions about the wisdom of placing control of VCP viruses under the NBL.

More Aerosol Studies

While UC Berkeley appears to have been at the heart of aerosol BW research, it was by no means alone. Other universities collaborated with the BW effort while working on the VCP in parallel. From 1955 to 1965, the Ohio State University College of Medicine conducted research for Fort Detrick into the aerosol transmission of BW agents including tularemia and Q fever.21 In some of these studies, prisoners from the Ohio State Penitentiary were used as guinea pigs. Between 1952 and 1969, the affiliated Ohio State University Research Foundation had eight contracts with the U.S. Army for BW research. Tularemia (“rabbit fever”) and Q fever were ultimately stockpiled by the U.S. Army.22

Before he worked with UC, Dr. Hellman supervised an NCI contract for Ohio State University. Designed to study the aerosol transmission of cancer-causing viruses, this research started in 1965 and continued at least until 1972. The principal investigator for this work, Dr. Richard Griesemer, would eventually succeed in giving tumors to mice and monkeys. Griesemer then went to work briefly at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy nuclear research system. After his stint at Oak Ridge, Griesemer returned to NCI, where he headed the NCI Bioassay program, which tested chemicals suspected of causing cancer. This multimillion dollar program was so badly managed that epidemics forced the killing of nearly 90,000 test animals and testing of suspected carcinogenic chemicals fell far behind schedule.23

Many other universities prominent in the U.S. BW program, such as Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, and the University of Minnesota, were also heavily involved in the VCP. Since the BW work performed by these universities remains classified, the exact relation between VCP and biological warfare research remains murky.

Viruses For Sale – Charles Pfizer and Co., Inc.

The pattern of overlapping military BW and NCI work was paralleled by the relationship between industrial contractors and the VCP. Charles Pfizer and Company, Inc., a pharmaceutical firm, had a contract with the NCI which included production of “a large quantity of a variety of viruses” for the VCP.24 The immunosuppressive Mason-Pfizer monkey virus was grown in large quantity, and other animal cancer viruses were adapted to grow in human cell lines. During the same time period—1961 to 1971—the NCI contractor, Pfizer conducted a secret study for the U.S. Army “into the growth and culture media for unspecified… biological agents.”25

In addition, from 1968 to 1970, Pftzer had a contract for Scale Production and Evaluation of Staphylococcal Enterotoxoid B” for the U.S. Army BW program.26 Staphylococcal enterotoxoid is a protective vaccine against a bacterial toxin which was part of the U.S. arsenal. The production of vaccine against a stockpiled BW weapon must be considered an offensive BW project According to MIT scientists Harlee Strauss and Jonathan King, “[t]hese steps—the generation of a potential BW agent, development of a vaccine against it, testing of the efficacy of the vaccine—are all components that would be associated with an offensive BW pro… gram.”27 Clearly, without an antidote or vaccine to protect attacking troops, the utility of a stockpiled BW agent would be seriously limited.


President Nixon’s 1971 announcement that Fort Detrick would be converted to a center for cancer research could not be immediately implemented. First, BW agents stored there, such as the anti-crop agent rice blast, had to be destroyed. The buildings were then decontaminated and the facilities were turned over to the NCI, which renamed the facility the Frederick Cancer Research Center; Litton-Bionetics was named as the prime contractor.. A major player in the military-industrial complex, the corporation worked extensively on the dispersion of BW agents from planes, and included U..S. Air Force contracts for “the supersonic delivery of dry biological agents.”28 From 1966 to 1968, Bionetics Research Laboratories (which became Litton-Bionetics in 1973) held two contracts with the U.5. Army BW program.29 At the same time, it held major contracts with the NCI.30

One of Bionetics Research Laboratories’ most important NCI contracts was a massive virus inoculation program that began in 1962 and and ran until at least 1976, and used more than 2,000 monkeys. Dr. Robert Gallo, the controversial head of the current U.S. AIDS research program at NCI and its chief of its tumor cell biology laboratory, and Dr. Jack Gruber, formerly of VCP and then NIH, were project officers for the inoculation program. The monkeys were injected with everything from human cancer tissues to rare viruses and even sheep’s blood in an effort to find a transmissible cancer. Many of these monkeys succumbed to immunosuppression after infection with the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, the first known immunosuppressive retrovirus,31 a class of viruses that includes the human immunodeficiency virus.

Breaking the “Species Barrier”

In 1976, Dr. Seymour Kalter, a prominent NCI scientist and former military medicine expert, reported on experiments so dangerous that other scientists publicly asked for an end to such work.32 By blending the genetic material of viruses causing cancers in mice and baboons, he created a new virus which could cause cancer in dogs, monkeys and even chimpanzees. Because it could attack chimpanzees, other scientists feared it could spread to genetically similar human beings. The new virus was a product of some of the first crude genetic “recombination” experiments.

Lawrence Loeb and Kenneth Tartof of the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, went even further in calling for change and called for a ban on such potentially dangerous experimentation.

The production of malignant tumors in a variety of primate species suggests the possibility of creating viruses that are oncogenic for humans… Therefore, we urge that all experiments involving co-cultivation of known oncogenic viruses with primate viruses be immediately halted until the safety of such experiments are [sic] extensively evaluated.33

Experiments performed under NCI contract included many dangerous viral inoculation programs, like the primate inoculation program run by Gallo and Gruber.. So-called “species barriers” were routinely breached in efforts to find or create infectious cancer viruses. Viruses native to one species were injected into animals from another species in hope of triggering cancers. Often the recipient animal would be immunosuppressed by radiation, drugs, or other treatments. NIH primate researchers were well aware that “the ecological niches of man and animal cross with increasing frequency, and this undoubtedly will create or uncover new problems.”34

At a 1975 NCI symposium, a participant, Dr. J. Moor-Janowski admitted that “environmental-motivated, we motivated groups begin to consider primate laboratories as being a source of danger.” He continued to comment that “a [European] primate center was not able to begin operations as a result of adverse publicity they obtained because of Marburg disease” The speaker was referring to a 1967 outbreak in Yugoslavia and West Germany of this viral disease, which killed several people. Tissues obtained from African Green monkeys used in biomedical work were the source of the mini-epidemic. Dr. Moor-Janowski suggested that researchers should fight against tighter restrictions on primate experiments.35

VCP Intellectual Recombination

Under the National Cancer Institute aegis, VCP provided many opportunities for conta
ct between former BW specialists and others in the scientific community. Former BW specialists Drs. Peter Gerone and Arnold Wedum were prominent members of the Biohazard Control and Containment Segment of the VCP. Their positions allowed them frequent contact with laboratories handling hazardous viruses. Gerone and Wedum both worked for many years at Fort Detrick; they were both specialists in the airborne transmission of diseases. In the 1950s, Wedum was in charge of U.S. Army tests of tularemia (“rabbit fever”) on human “volunteers.” In Gerone’s BW research, he used prisoners from the Federal Prison Camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. This group of human guinea pigs was more fortunate than Dr. Wedum’s; they were exposed only to cold viruses. Gerone was awarded the Army’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his efforts at Fort Detrick.

The 1975 NCI sponsored symposium on “Biohazards and Zoonotic Problems of Primate Procurement, Quarantine, and Research”36 illustrates another aspect of NCI-military cooperation. Zoonoses—diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans—make up the majority of BW agents. The meeting brought together NCI researchers, nine military officers from Major to U. Colonel and a civilian from the Edgewood Arsenal, a U.S. chemical warfare facility, also in Maryland. The officers were from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the Defense Nuclear Agency and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. In addition, Drs. Wedum, Duff, Gruber, and Gerone were all in attendance.

Gerone presented a paper on the “Biohazards of Experimentally Infected Primates”; he now headed Tulane University’s Delta Regional Primate Research Center. In passing, he mentioned aerosol hazards and recommended “exposing animals so that only the head is in contact with the aerosol” rather than using “whole body exposure.” Wedum had previously briefed him on BW tests involving just such exposure of monkeys to aerosolized staphylococcal enterotoxin; in these tests four Fort Detrick workers still became ill through exposure to the animals. Presumably Gerone was also aware of a 1964 accident when 15 Fort Detrick workers inhaled aerosolized staphylococcal enterotoxin B, “milligram for milligram, one of the most deadly agents ever studied.”37

In addition to symposia which brought together military and civilian specialists, the VCP utilized consultants with strong biological warfare backgrounds. At times, Dr. Stuart Madin and Mark Chatigny from the NBL, Peter Gerone, and Arthur Brown were all listed as consultants to the NCI. Brown, the former head of the Virus and Rickettsia Division of Fort Detrick, had already been involved in a blatant instance of attempted covert recruitment of microbiologists for BW research.

In 1966, Brown signed a letter soliciting research.38 It asked scientists to submit proposals to study the recombination of bacteria, but tried to disguise the true source of funding-the Department of Defense. NCI scientist Karl Habel also signed the letter; Habel was “connected with viral research at the National Institutes of Health.”39 The attempt to recruit microbiologists to work on recombination of bacteria fizzled after the funding source was publicly exposed. That it was attempted at all, shows that NIH scientists were willing to team up with the Fort Detrick specialist in covert operations and that some were also willing to deceive their colleagues into collaborating with them.

Covering for BW Research

Research into viruses during the War on Cancer provided an ideal cover for continuing biological warfare research. As Colonel Tigertt advised, the NCI project allowed the mass production of viruses, the development of means to enhance virulence, exploration of aerosol transmission, and the production of new recombinant disease agents. These “civilian” projects ran concurrently with “military” projects in many cases. When political expediency dictated an end to overt U.S. BW research, the Viral Cancer Program provided a means to continue experiments that would otherwise be difficult to justify.

That the U.S. would covertly continue a BW program should not be quickly discounted. Right up to the start of the VCP, U.S. covert operators conducted clandestine tests simulating aerosol BW attacks. The NBL supplied personnel, lab facilities, and equipment for a secret 1950 aerosol attack on San Francisco which resulted in dosing almost everyone in the city with a BW agent “simulant.”40 Other military experiments used specialized cars and suitcases.41 The Special Operations Division of the CIA, which operated from Fort Detrick, engaged in similar covert tests using LSD and other chemical under the MK-ULTRA program. Another CIA-SOD program, MK-NAOMI, collected biological toxins and disease.42

While Nixon ordered a supposed end to BW offensive efforts in 1969, the Central Intelligence Agency retained a secret BW and toxin weapon capability.43 Given this record of deception in the U.S. BW program, the Viral Cancer Program may well have used the search for a cure for cancer as a cover to continue its experiments on biological warfare.


Richard Hatch is a research chemist with 12 years’ industrial experience. He currently designs scientific instruments for use in biotechnology and related fields.

1. Charles Piller and Keith R. Yamamoto, Gene Wars: Military Control Over the New Genetic Technologies (New York: Beech Tree Books/Morrow and Co.)t 1988, p. 50.

2. Louis Wolf, “This Side of NuclearWar,” CAIB, (Summer 1982), p. 14.

3. The bureaucratic organization of NCI units changes. Some NCI contracts began before the VCP actually started. For simplicity, these contracts are referred to as VCP contracts when they continue under the VCP effort.

4. The author believes that the vast majority of scientists involved in the NCI were and are well-intentioned colleagues whose ethics a:re not in question.

5. U.S.Army Activity in the U.S. Biological Warfare Programs, Volume II, Unclassified, February 24, 1977, pp. I-C-4-5.

6. The U.S. treaty obligation was under the Geneva Convention on the Prohibition ofthe Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, signed at Washington and Moscow on April 10, 1972, and published in Gene Wars, op cit., pp. 162-63. This treaty specifically bound its parties [Article I] never to “develop, produce, or stockpile… microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” Thus, dangerous cancer viruses would be difficult to produce in “quantities that have no justification” unless a medical cover could be found. (Piller and Yamamoto, op. cit.).

7. Special Virus Cancer Project Progress Report, 1972, Etiology Area National Cancer Institute,U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (DHEW), Public Health Service, p. 33.

8. Erhard Geissler, ed., Biological and Toxin Weapons Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 22.

9. The Viral Cancer Program Progress Report, U.S. National Institutes of Health, June 1971, p. 272.

10. John Cookson and Judith Nottingham, A Survey of Chemical and Biological Warfare (New York: Modem Reader, 1969), p. 82.

11. Seymour Hersh, Chemical and Biological Warfare (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968), p. 226.

12. The Viral Cancer Program Progress Report, U.S. National Institutes of Health, June 1977, pp. 272, 302.

13. American Men and Women of Science (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1976), p. 1097.

14. U.S. Army Activity in the U.S. Biological Warfare Programs, op. cit, p. D2.

15. Hersh, op. cit., p. 128.

16. American Men and Women of Science (N
ew York: R.R Bowker, 1989), p. 358.

17. The Viral Cancer Program Progress Report, U.S. National Institutes of Health, June 1977, p. 52.

18. Ibid., p. 302.

19. Special Virus Cancer Project Progress Report, 1972, Etiology Area-National Cancer Institute, DHEW, p. 7.

20. Cookson and Nottingham, op. cit., p. 82.

21. Ibid., p. 91.

22. U.S. Army Activity in the U.S. Biological Warfare Programs, op. cit.

23. Science, Vol. 204, June 22,1979, p. 1287.

24. Special Virus Cancer Project Progress Report, 1971, Etiology Area-National Cancer Institute, DHEW, p. 114.

25. Hersh, op. cit., p. 255.

26. U.S. Army Activity in the US. Biological Warfare Programs, op. cit., p. K2-3.

27. Piller and Yamamoto, op. cit., p. 117.

28. Hersh, op. cit., pp. 59-60.

29. U.S. Army Activity in the US. Biological Warfare Programs, op. cit. p. I-C-4.

30. Special Virus Cancer Project Progress Report, 1971, Etiology Area-National Cancer Institute, DHEW, p. 68.

31. A retrovirus is a virus whose genetic material is composed of RNA instead of DNA and which must convert to a DNA fonn before it can reproduce. The human immunodeficiency viruses are retroviruses.

32. Science, Volume 193, July 23, 1976, p. 273.

33. Ibid.

34. H. Bainer and WJ.B. Beveridge, eds., Infections and Immunosuppression in Subhuman Primates (Baltimore: Winiams and Wilkins Company, 1970), p. 116.

35. “Proceedings of a Cancer Research SafetySymposium,” DHEW Publication No. (NIH) 76-890, March 19,1975.

36. “Proceedings of a Cancer Research Safety Symposium,” op. cit., p. 62.

37. Piller and Yamamoto, op. cit., p. 53.

38. Hersh, Op. cit., p. 278.

39. Ibid.

40. J.B. Nielands, “Navy Alters Course at Berkeley,” Science for the People, November-December 1988, p. 11.

41. “CIA May Have Tested Biological Weapons in New York in ’50s, Church Says,” Washington Post, December 4, 1979, p. A7.

42. John Marks, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (New York: McGraw-Hili, 1980), pp. 74-75.

43. Church Committee Report, “Unauthorized Storage of Toxic Agents” Vol. 1, pp. 189-99.


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