December 19

1942–1975: U.S. Soldiers Experimental Guinea Pigs

Alfred Richards, a pharmacologist, headed the Committee on Medical Research coordinating wartime medical research initiated by Department of Defense (DOD), Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, later EPA), and the CIA. In 1942, Richards requested permission from the Secretaries of the Army and Navy to use soldiers as subjects to “study vesicant gases”. He explained that human experiments with poison gas were necessary and could be done safely. “In the hands of competent experimenters much can be learned concerning the prevention and treatment of gas burns in men without subjecting them to more than relatively trivial annoyance.” (Raffi Khatchadourian. Operation Delirium, New Yorker, 2012)

In reality, U.S. soldiers and sailors were subjected to unconscionable experiments testing chemical and biological agents for use as weapons. Admittedly, “the weapons development program, [ ] was controversial at the start and remains so to date. Biological weapons are still as silent, deadly, and inhumane, whether they kill, maim, or incapacitate.” (Cutting Edge: The History of Ft. Detrick, 1997)

The Army built a gas chamber “to advance clinical research.”

“The chamber—an upgrade of an earlier model—occupied a corner of Building 326, which also housed the Officers’ Club. The structure’s walls, made of tile and brick, gave it a vaultlike appearance. Its door was airtight and forged out of thick metal; it had been salvaged from a First World War Navy ship, as was a porthole that served as its sole window. The chamber was a perfect cube, nine feet in all dimensions. Inside, the only source of light was a hundred-watt bulb mounted behind an explosion-proof shield. No more than seven men would be in the room at any given time.” (Operation Delirium, 2012)

A classified report, “Gassing Chamber for Human Tests: Construction and Operation,” explains that the chamber’s equipment was designed to run “completely automatically,” with an attendant necessary only to manipulate the dials and to observe the glass bubblers and the pressurized containers and the ducts used to control the flow of gas.

The experiments were conducted by both military and academic physicians. The uninformed human subjects included military servicemen, prisoners, mentally incapacitated persons, disabled veterans, and hospitalized patients; most of whom were not volunteers.


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