Health Nugget – Operation Whitecoat

We impatiently watch as scientists race to find vaccines for new viruses endangering our lives today. Our world is not in this situation for the first time. Most people today are unaware that lots of the antibiotics and vaccines that we use today required a great sacrifice of young Seventh-day Adventists. Many effective medical drugs bear a significant Adventist footprint. But first, a little history.

In 1945, the U.S. Army and the Soviet Red Army raced to reach Germany. In addition to the goal of liberating Europe from Nazi occupation, there was one more goal: find and capture German scientists who were the world’s best at the time. Many of these scientists worked for the Nazi war machine, designing rockets and biological weapons. Many of them later stood trial for their war crimes. But the United States intervened in their favor in Operation Paperclip and whisked over 1,500 German scientists to the United States. Many of them found new high-ranking positions, eventually employed at NASA or in the U.S. biological weapon research where they could continue their research with no questions asked about their past.

One of those German scientists consulted by U.S. chemical warfare experts was Kurt Blome who tested chemicals on human prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. He was tried for his war crimes at the Nuremberg tribunal, but the United States intervened and acquitted him of his crimes in exchange for contributions to U.S. scientific research.

At the time, world leaders didn’t envision lasting peace. Many countries advanced significantly in the development of biological weapons and the United States couldn’t stay behind. The cold war was starting, and an armed conflict seemed often imminent.

The United States set up a biological warfare research facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland, in 1943. Aforementioned German scientist Kurt Blome was consulted for this camp research after the war. This facility’s mission was top secret and no one in the military really knew what went on behind its walls. Officially, it was used by weapons storage.

Many ex-Nazi German researchers claimed that testing biological agents on animals wasn’t adequate. No animal can substitute for testing on humans. Here the Seventh-day Adventist Church comes into place. Many young Adventists were conscientious objectors and were refusing to bear arms in the U.S. armed forces. So the U.S. military made an offer to the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Your young men can serve their country without bearing arms. They can help in biodefense of the United States. The Seventh-day Adventist Church accepted and signed an agreement.

Thousands of young Adventists started to enlist with the blessing of their church. Many of them ended up at Fort Detrick, Maryland, participating in the top-secret Operation Whitecoat, which ran from 1954 to 1973.

These Adventist young men were patriots. They were not indifferent to the accusations of being cowards, while their non-Adventist compatriots were sacrificing their lives in the U.S. military. These men were also the perfect bioresearch subjects. They were young, often vegetarian, in perfect health, their bodies unharmed by drinking or smoking. They were exactly what the U.S. military wanted.

These young men signed an agreement informing them that they would be exposed to harmful pathogens and chemicals. What will happen to them exactly? Will their health or life be endangered? No one had answers to these questions. While the research subjects were classified as “volunteers,” any kind of volunteerism is in doubt if the choices are violating one’s conscience or benefiting humanity as a human guinea pig. Get dangerously sick or get drafted to war? Many took the first option.

What happened at this secret facility? The campus had a metal sphere with windows that were airtight. It was called the Eight Ball. The army volunteers were locked into this ball and aerosolized bioagents were released into it. Researchers then monitored the subjects’ reactions. All subjects eagerly cooperated, which was a new experience for the German research team members. Afterward, these Adventist volunteers were quarantined and treated for any symptoms.

What were the experiments? The subjects were infected with Q-fever. The military was concerned that the disease, if weaponized, could incapacitate thousands of soldiers. The antidote tried was the antibiotic tetracycline. Another trial was yellow fever, which is a severe viral disease that kills the inhabitants of tropical areas. A vaccine was discovered at Fort Detrick for this infection. The portfolio of infections also included Rift Valley Fever (RVF) which is zoonotic, i.e., transferred from animals. We still have no cure, but an effective vaccine was discovered at Fort Detrick. Other examples are tularemia, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, sand-fly fever – all in the name of protecting the United States from the growing Soviet arsenal of biological weapons.

At other times the volunteers were accompanied by guinea pigs and macaques in their tents, waiting until a virus jumped from the animals to the young men. “Then came fevers, convulsions, chills, absolute numbness alternating with the feeling that the skeleton jumps out of my body. Two or three days were really hard for me. I really have never been any sicker than that,” recalls Merlin Neff, who was 23 at the time.

There were reportedly hundreds of substances and drugs tested. Sometimes the subjects had to be bitten by mosquitoes. Other times, they were locked in a shipping container, bus, or wagon. Then it was monitored how many of them would passively become infected. With what? They usually didn’t know.*

Many of the participants became violently ill. How did these young men feel about these experiments? “Some of the guys said that first they were afraid to die, and then some of them were afraid they wouldn’t die,” said Richard O. Stenbakken, director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries.*

President Richard Nixon finally ended these experiments in 1973. And what happened to the Eight Ball? It still sits largely forgotten on the Fort Detrick campus, today owned by the National Cancer Institute. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977.

Whitecoat volunteers made up one of the largest human testing programs in the nation’s history. Many of these volunteers’ health was severely impacted for the rest of their lives. Yet, they were bound by military oath to remain silent until 1994 when this program was declassified. Sadly, these Adventist military members were unsuccessful in their petition for veteran benefits.

Every year, there are fewer and fewer of these volunteers alive.


Martin Bernar is a graphic designer and writes from Dallas, Texas.