Must-read: Cold War experiments into BZ, sarin and other chemical weapons

December 23, 2012, 11:30 pm

Raffi Khatchadourian’s recent New Yorker article “Operation Delirium” is an amazing piece that details the U.S. military’s “volunteer” human experiments — mostly carried out at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland — concerning incapacitating agents such as LSD, PCP and BZ.

In this context, subjects were also exposed to sublethal doses of the nerve agents sarin and VX, since it was believed that such exposure would be disabling. Most often, subjects were not informed about exactly what chemical(s) were involved in these studies, or potential adverse effects. These experiments clearly violated the 1947 Nuremberg Code that established ethical principles for research involving human subjects.

Khatchadourian focuses his article on Dr. James Ketchum, an Army psychiatrist who worked on many of these projects, at one time under the supervision of an eccentric internist named Van Murray Sim:

Testing psychochemicals for intelligence purposes, Sim appeared to believe, required a uniquely loose protocol: the goal was to control the mind, and the subject’s expectations of the drug’s effect mattered. He often gave LSD to people without warning. Not long after arriving at Edgewood, Ketchum took to playing tennis with a commanding officer at the arsenal, who, after a match one day, described how Sim had spiked his morning coffee with LSD “He was pissed off as hell,” Ketchum told me. LSD had been mixed into cocktails at a party, and into an Army unit’s water supply. Some men handled it fine; some went berserk.

Sim’s successor, Colonel Douglas Lindsey, was just as reckless:

[Lindsey] was known to dip his finger in a beaker containing the lethal agent [VX], then fun it on the back of a shaved rabbit; as the animal convulsed and died, he would casually walk across the room and bathe his finger in a Martini to wash off the VX. “I thought they were crazy,” a doctor who served under him told me. “I was going to New York, and Colonel Lindsey tells me, ‘How about taking a vial of nerve gas to New York to make a demonstration.” And I am looking at the gy and thinking, If I have an accident on the Thruway, I could kill thousands of people — thousands of people. I said, ‘No. It’s that simple.’”

TPR first became interested into military human research into incapacitating agents after coming across a stunning article about work done during the Cold War at Hopkins. (Grob D, Harvey JC. Effect in man of the anticholinesterase compound sarin. J Clin Invest 195837:350) In that paper, the authors describe experiments in which they administered the nerve agent sarin orally and  intra-arterially(!).

To view a video documenting some of the experiments at Edgewood, click here.

 

 

 

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