Read transcripts of Weapons pioneer Ira Baldwin's candid recollections on the process of developing biological weaponry as a civilian researcher.
When asked if he had any misgivings about the work he did, Baldwin explained “I grew up first in medical bacteriology, and you spend your time trying to kill microorganisms to prevent them from causing disease. Now, to turn around and think of it as I had to was horrifying to some extent. Yes, no question about it.” Still he claimed it took him only 24 hours to make that shift. In the context of a war in which the outcome was uncertain, he felt that everyone was obligated to contribute his part.
Ira Baldwin: After all, the immorality of war is war itself. You start out with the idea in war of killing people, and that to me is the immoral part of it. And I tried to put myself in the position of being killed, badly maimed, or something else, in war. Would I rather have a dagger stuck into me, or be hit by a high explosive, or be hit with fire and badly burned, or would I rather have any disease that I could think of. To me it was very simple. I’d rather have any disease that anybody could name than to have any of these other things happen to me.
I think you may recognize this if you take the next step which I took. I, in imagination, went into a hospital. You go into an accident ward and everybody is moaning and suffering. They’re in pain. You walk through a contagious disease ward — you can’t do that anymore, though; we don’t have many contagious disease wards — nobody is suffering. They’re weak, they’re desperately ill, but they aren’t really suffering. Diseases, by and large, don’t bring on suffering. Injuries bring on very real suffering. So if it’s a question of how much you suffer, it’s clear that biological warfare is a more humane weapon than any we commonly use.
Ira Baldwin: This was really a question of whether you might win the war or lose it. I have talked about this with my children and grandchildren. They have no conception of the fact that the people of the United States were fearful that they might lose that war. That just doesn’t make any impression on them; they simply can’t believe it.
Interviewer: Well, because we didn’t [lose], it’s hard to reproduce the climate in which one was fearful.
Ira Baldwin: Well, that’s true, but I think to understand the biological warfare program you do need to understand the climate in which we existed. So my problem was a terrifically big one, but it never occurred to me to say, 'I don’t want to do this.’ Everybody was doing whatever he was asked to do.
Ira Baldwin: On the physical end we also developed some more or less group shelter kinds of programs which could have been used. For example, there was a great deal of worry about shelters against nuclear bombs. And while the bomb had not been used, knowledge of the fact that it might be used was available to us, and we began to worry about how you could protect against it. Then, if you’re going to have bomb shelters against nuclear bombs, could you also make them safe against colonies of microorganisms? So, by and large, our’s was a defensive kind of program, although in the late stages of the program there was a decision reached at high levels that we should be able to retaliate in kind, if necessary. In other words, it was very clear policy that the United States would never use it first, but if somebody else used it, and if we found it advisable, we ought to be able to retaliate against it.
Baldwin worked to develop safety procedures that are now standard: his laboratories were equipped with blowers to maintain negative air pressure, keeping all microorganisms within the lab and incinerators to sterilize the contaminated air before it was recirculated. But despite his efforts, at least four men are reported to have died during his experimentation, though all within the confines of the lab, and not in public.
Ira Baldwin: You could do it safely. We had a few accidents in the laboratories of the project, but the accidents all occurred in laboratories.
Interviewer: Not in the mass production.
*We didn’t have a single accident in the pilot plant, which again bore out my statement that you could do it as safely or safer, I thought than you could do it in the laboratory.
We demonstrated very definitely some of the hazards of handling microorganisms that nobody had ever thought about. For example, you have pipetted material in a pipette from a test tube over to a Petri dish, and thought you were doing it perfectly safely. We found in careful studies that there were microscopic droplets popping up from the Petri dish all over the surroundings, and getting into the air and so forth. So we developed many new techniques to handle things much more safely than bacteriologists had ever done before. For example, for all of the laboratories we incinerated all of the outgoing air. We put the room under pressure, air pressure, and then the air going out was heated to the point where it killed anything that went out, and that was standard all over, not only in the laboratories but in the pilot plants, too, and so forth.
Ira Baldwin: Now, some of these we have immunizing agents for, many of them we do not. I think today sometimes it’s difficult to realize that we didn’t know how to immunize against a good many of the diseases which we were thinking about in World War II. But we did actually develop new immunizing agents for a number of organisms in the program, which had not been in existence before. So we did have a greater supply then. We developed ties with drug companies to produce these immunizing agents. A few of them were actually put into use with selected troops of soldiers. Most of them were not.
Ira Baldwin: The masks which had been developed for chemical warfare were not effective against bacterial agents. We had to develop new masks for that. And we were successful in developing a mask that’s reasonably comfortable to wear, and which is effective in filtering out microorganisms. We worked at the process of trying to develop an early-warning system, and this was not as successful as we’d have liked for it to have been. I well remember one navy captain who was with us, who used to insist that he was not going to be satisfied until you had a signal that would ring a bell when a single pathogenic organism came into the room [laughter] — well we all wanted it, but we didn’t get that far.
Most of the individuals serving at Camp Detrick were military personnel and many of the scientists became commissioned officers. Despite being a World War I veteran, Baldwin opted to remain a civilian during World War II.
Yes, I was a civilian. I wasn’t even on the payroll of the Department of Defense. I was on the payroll of the University of Wisconsin during all the time I was there. In the contract it said the University of Wisconsin was to furnish technical advice to the military in such-and-such areas. So I was never on the payroll of the military. I was a civilian. ... I used to say that as long as I wore a red necktie I could say no to anybody, but as soon as I put on a uniform, whether it was a colonel or general or something else, there was always somebody up above that you had to say, 'Yes, sir’ to. On the other hand, being a civilian in a military establishment did cause some problems, in that you didn’t have the same authority. While I could say no to anybody else, as a civilian I couldn’t command people under me as a civilian in the same way that the military could. On the other hand, in a research assignment I didn’t think you could accomplish much by commanding people anyway.
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