Conscientious objectors fought war with germs

September 25, 1998

Byron SteeleBy GUY FLETCHER / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

While participating in human medical trials conducted by the U.S. Army in 1955, Byron Steele agreed to be exposed to Queensland fever, an airborne infectious disease known to incapacitate its victims for weeks.

Steele, now 65 and living near Smithsburg, was one of the 2,300 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who volunteered for what came to be known as Operation Whitecoat, which ran from 1954 to 1973.

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During that time, the church members, conscientious objectors who refused to bear arms, served the military by volunteering to be exposed to biological agents and vaccines for diseases such as typhoid fever, anthrax and several strains of encephalitis.


This weekend, more than 200 Operation Whitecoat veterans are to meet in Frederick, Md., where most of the Army testing was conducted at Fort Detrick, to mark the 25th anniversary of the program's closing.

Ceremonies, to be held at the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church, include religious services, dedication of the new Whitecoat Memorial and the release of a book detailing the history of the Whitecoat program.

The weekend will include a discussion by Army medical personnel about whether the testing has resulted in any long-term adverse health effects, which is the subject of a study the Army currently is conducting.

Human subjects

Whitecoat began in the early 1950s, when the Army needed human subjects on whom to test vaccines designed to combat infectious agents that soldiers might be exposed to around the world. They approached the national Seventh-day Adventist Church with an idea: Recruit volunteers from church members who were drafted into the service and training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, to become medical corpsmen.

"We were not against the government. We were not trying to skip the country. We weren't against anything but killing," said Dr. Frank Damazo, a Frederick Seventh-day Adventist and surgeon who is coordinating the reunion events.

Damazo, who was not a Whitecoat member, said choosing the Adventists made scientific sense because most of the men were in good health, adhering to a church practice of abstaining from tobacco, alcohol and caffeine. Many were vegetarians and had a relatively high level of education.

"In all research, you like to have the (people in the) groups as close as possible to each other," he said.

Damazo, who befriended many of the Whitecoat participants during the 19-year study, said the men volunteered for several reasons: Some saw it as a way to advance the church's emphasis on medicine; some saw it, especially during the Vietnam War, as a less-dangerous alternative to an overseas deployment, and some just wanted to help others.

Roland Penner, a Hagerstown resident who took part in Operation Whitecoat from 1963 to 1965, said he agreed to be exposed to tularemia in the hope a cure could be found for the virulent microbe that had killed friends and relatives in his native California.

Both Penner and Steele said they weren't too concerned about the health risk because they were aware medications and vaccines already were available for the diseases to which they would be exposed.

"I didn't see a lot of danger," Steele said.

A way to serve

While Operation Whitecoat seemed to many to be an ideal solution to the Seventh-day Adventists' dilemma of remaining in a nonmilitary role while still serving the country, the project was not without its detractors.

Moral objections were raised over whether the project was being conducted only for defensive purposes. Critics reasoned that if the medical trials could tell the Army more about how to defend itself against chemical and germ warfare, they also could provide information on how to use germ warfare offensively.

Doamazo said the question also was raised over whether the program was really voluntary, because a young soldier might feel intimidated by a project that was being endorsed by the Army and many church officials.

The church officially took a neutral position on Whitecoat, even if it did publicize the program as a means to fulfill military service and participate in a program to help others, said Kermit Netteburg, spokesman for the national General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists.

"There's no doubt about it. The Adventist church felt Operation Whitecoat was designed to help people," Netteburg said.

Volunteers were given the opportunity to reject participation in specific tests. About 20 percent of all Operation Whitecoat volunteers never took part in any tests during their two years in the Army.

Testing vaccine

In Steele's lone test, he was given the Queensland fever vaccine a year before he was exposed to the disease. He said he suffered no symptoms of the disease but he noticed that some of the soldiers, who were given varying dosages of the vaccine, did become ill.

"Mine must have been perfect," he said, adding that he is in perfect health today.

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