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The Living Weapon | Article

Ira Baldwin

Ira Baldwin in the lab, 1920s. Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

An Indiana farm boy, World War I veteran, and part-time preacher, Ira Baldwin became a noted agricultural bacteriologist at the University of Wisconsin and the civilian science director of the United States biological weapons research program at Camp Detrick.

Baldwin was born on a 40-acre farm in 1895 and spent the summers of his youth husking corn and selling ducks to earn money for college. Deeply religious, with Quaker grandparents, Baldwin also preached in local churches that lacked regular ministers. In World War I, he served state-side as a second lieutenant in an artillery unit, commanding a burial detail during the 1918 influenza epidemic. And although Baldwin attended college at Purdue, he sought his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a place he remembered fondly from a summer spent cultivating cucumbers there for the Heinz Company. Baldwin began his graduate work at University of Wisconsin in the mid-1920s, and by the time the United States entered World War II, he had become chair of the bacteriology department. Then in November 1942, Baldwin got a call from Colonel William Kabrich of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, requesting his presence at a top secret meeting in Washington.

The War Effort
At first it was just speculative talk, but after announcing that Germany and Japan were supporting biological warfare programs, Kabrich asked Baldwin and other assembled scientists whether they thought the U.S. could produce tons of its own bacteriological agents. Absolutely, Baldwin replied; “[I]f you could do it in a test tube, you could do it in a 10,000-gallon tank,” and “if you get enough tanks I’m sure you will get tons.” A month later Kabrich was on the phone again, asking Baldwin to lead the effort to do just that. Baldwin considered the moral implications of this request, but it only took him 24 hours to decide. “You start out with the idea in war of killing people,” he would later say, “and that to me is the immoral part of it. It doesn’t make much difference how you kill them.” Armed with this rationalization, Baldwin again headed east, this time in charge of the science and administration of America’s biological weapons research program.

A Red Tie
A Camp Detrick researcher using a Class III Safety Hood. Baldwin remained a civilian and found certain advantages to that; he would later say, “[A]s long as I wore a red tie I could say no to anybody.” But the absence of military rank did not mean Baldwin lacked responsibility. He first undertook to find a home for the program, eventually settling on a little-used National Guard airfield in Frederick, Maryland, known as Camp Detrick. Baldwin recruited scientists for his facility, later observing that unless the person was also needed by the Manhattan Project, he usually got the men he requested. And, aided by a production manual written by British bacteriologist Paul Fildes, Baldwin’s team began work on the production of botulinum toxin and anthrax bacterial spores. In 1943 he scouted locations for outdoor biological weapons testing, eventually settling on Horn Island off the Mississippi coast. As the war dragged on, Camp Detrick expanded, employing more than 2,000 people at its height and conducting tests responsible for the death of 658,039 animals. Faced with requests for a million anthrax bombs from the U.S. and British governments, Baldwin helped set up a large-scale manufacturing facility in Vigo, Indiana. But the war ended before any biological weapons were actually produced by the Vigo plant.

Back to Wisconsin
After World War II ended, Baldwin returned to University of Wisconsin, becoming vice president of academic affairs in 1948 and special assistant to the university’s president a decade later. He continued to advise the United States on biological weapons, evaluating the threat posed by Cold War adversaries and suggesting a series of tests on U.S. cities with supposedly harmless bacteria in order to evaluate how pathogens might spread if released by enemy agents. He officially retired from University of Wisconsin in 1966 but continued working in the field of international agriculture for a number of years. Baldwin died in 1999, just a couple of weeks before he would have turned 104.

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