Ask around Fort Detrick and you’ll probably learn more about Operation Whitecoat — an Army program that exposed human participants to infectious pathogens. But outside the base, the experiments are virtually unheard of, according to Randy Larsen, a former Air Force pilot turned documentary filmmaker.
“I found there are very few people who have ever heard of Whitecoat, which is why there’s a good reason to tell the story,” Larsen said.
Larsen himself became fascinated with the program — which recruited more than 2,300 noncombatant conscientious objectors from the Seventh-day Adventist Church — after a friend suggested it as a documentary topic.
What he anticipated would be a five- to six-month hobby project eventually turned into a 20-month film production, culminating in an eponymously named documentary on the operation and its volunteers.
The film “Operation Whitecoat” made its debut in Frederick on May 30 at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the agency that conducted the tests from 1954 to 1973. But Larsen will also hold two public screenings on June 3 at the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church on Jefferson Pike.
Gary Swanson and Ken Jones, two Whitecoat participants who attended the screening on May 30, said outreach to the church was especially important. Despite the huge role played by Seventh-day Adventists, knowledge of the project has faded among church members.
“It’s very little-known, I’ve found that to be true,” Swanson said. “Even in the church, it doesn’t come up very often.”
A lasting legacy
Despite the relative obscurity of Operation Whitecoat, civilians around the country — and around the world — can thank the program for the development of several widely used vaccines. Tularemia, yellow fever, and hepatitis vaccines were all tested on participants in the project, Larsen said.
“That’s why I found it interesting to see that the yellow fever outbreak was a front-page story today,” he added at the May 30 screening, pointing out a USA Today article on the spread of the disease in Brazil. “Because the vaccine was developed here at Fort Detrick with the Whitecoat program.”
To research for his documentary, Larsen interviewed participants all across the country and dug deep into the documentation of the program.
Letters between military and church leaders indicate that the Army considered the program a viable alternative to battlefield service for church members, whose religious beliefs urge against combat.
“The general consensus is that it is just not morally responsible to bear arms,” said Swanson, who later worked in publishing for the Adventist church. “That the taking of life is not the business of a Christian.”
There is, however, strong scriptural support for serving one’s country in a peaceful capacity, he added. As a result, most church members served the U.S. either as medics or as Whitecoat volunteers once the program became an option.
While both Swanson and Jones participated in the program, their experiences were slightly different. Jones, 83, served from 1954 to 1955 and then worked as a corpsman for the program until September 1958.
As one of the inaugural volunteers, he distinctly remembers walking across a catwalk at Fort Detrick — then called Camp Detrick — to the “Eight Ball,” where participants were exposed to the pathogens.
He and the other men in his group were dosed with Q fever, a relatively common bacterial disease with flu-like symptoms. None of them got sick, Jones said, but the experiment did help researchers adjust the dose for future volunteers.
“It’s like this — when you start your car, you take little steps to get there,” he explained. “You don’t take one big step and just jump in. Well, the amount they gave us, they knew we handled it OK. Now, the next three that came up, they did get sick.”
Swanson served later, and was part of an even lesser-known aspect of the program — one that benefited scientists at NASA. He reported for service in October 1969, and was part of an experiment to determine how well astronauts could function should they became sick while on a mission.
In his study, teams of five men were exposed to sandfly fever and then trained on a simulated spacecraft console. Eight hours a day, three days a week, the teams pretended to operate the consoles, even while some of them developed nausea and fevers of up to 104 degrees.
“You had to keep calibrated and you had to keep it set,” Swanson said. “When you saw it going wrong, you had to figure out how to fix it. And we were told it was part of a study underwritten by NASA to anticipate astronauts’ ability to operate sophisticated equipment if they were sick.”
Beyond the benefit to NASA, USAMRIID still attributes the development of essential safety gear — including gas masks and biohazard suits — to Operation Whitecoat.
The program even played a small role in the Camp David Accords. In 1977, an outbreak of Rift Valley fever in Egypt killed thousands of residents and animals. The vaccine for the disease — tested by Whitecoat volunteers — was a major bargaining chip for both Egypt and Israel when leaders met with President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
“That was such a little-known piece of history that the people at USAMRIID didn’t even know about it,” Larsen said.
Larsen and researchers at USAMRIID also tout the program as the harbinger of stringent standards for human testing. Operation Whitecoat set a precedent for informed consent — the policy of clearly educating human test subjects on the details and risks of research experiments — and served as a foil to other horrific experiments conducting on unknowing subjects, including the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and human radiation exposure by the Atomic Energy Commission.
“It’s a story that all Americans can be proud of,” Larsen said. “The fact is, Operation Whitecoat is one of the highest standards of ethical research out there.”
One of the most striking details of the project, he added, is that military leaders and researchers at USAMRIID exposed themselves to the pathogens before subjecting their participants. Both Jones and Swanson said that it was strong leadership that prevented real fear among the volunteers.
“I’ve thought about this many times, and I can’t give you an answer on what went through my mind as I went across that catwalk,” Jones said. “I was 21 years old. We felt like we had good leadership. We trusted what they were telling us, and we followed.”