“This is (Not) a Test”: Human Dimensions of Open-Air Biological Weapons Tests, 1949-1969

Erin Balcom


In the fall of 1950, eleven San Francisco residents were admitted to Berkeley Hospital with rare bacterial infections. Nearly thirty years later, a Senate subcommittee hearing revealed that the military deliberately released Serratia marcescens, a known opportunistic pathogen, from a naval ship in San Francisco Bay just days before the outbreak, which resulted in the death of Edward J. Nevin. Over the next twenty years, a court case and numerous investigations uncovered an alarming truth about the United States biological weapons program. Government and military personnel have repeatedly and publicly defended the safety and ethics of the research program, insisting that the released substances were "harmless simulants", and that their activities did not qualify as human experimentation. These claims contradict not only official project reports, but the knowledge of civilian scientists and the experiences of the exposed populations, which document the widely ignored human dimensions of the project. 

Full Text: