During the Cold War, 2,300 noncombatant conscientious objectors from Seventh-day Adventist Church offered themselves as human test subjects for Army medical experiments on vaccines and infectious pathogens. They provided their time freely.
Whitecoat volunteers were exposed to pathogens such as Q fever, tularemia, Venezuelan encephalitis and hepatitis A in an exclusive spherical chamber called the Eight Ball.
The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)
Fort Detrick military labs are well-known for their research of infectious pathogens, yet few people outside the base know about Operation Whitecoat, an experiment which recruited over 2,300 noncombatant conscientious objectors from Seventh-Day Adventist Church to participate in experiments exposed them to dangerous viruses and bacteria. Randy Larsen, an Air Force pilot turned documentary filmmaker discovered this program when suggested as subject for his new film.
Its aim was to gauge human susceptibility to infections by biological warfare agents and develop vaccines against them.
Whitecoat volunteers were exposed to numerous diseases, including Q fever, yellow and Rift Valley fevers, hepatitis A, Yersinia pestis (plague), Tularemia rabbit fever and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.
Some participants became seriously ill but were treated successfully without experiencing lasting health complications; many reported no further health problems post exposure.
USAMRIID still conducts experiments involving human subjects, though these have become less frequent compared to their peak during Project Whitecoat between 1955 and 1973.
USAMRIID credits the program with giving rise to gas masks, biohazard suits and modern informed-consent protocols – which has since led to other innovations like gas detection sensors for airships and modern informed consent protocols.
Some 2,500 Whitecoat volunteers participated in these tests, conducted primarily inside a 40-foot steel sphere known as “the Eight Ball.” Scientists would fill its chamber with various amounts of aerosol, while volunteers wearing gas masks inhaled the infectious agents present within. Sometimes it even served as a means to test new vaccines.
USAMRIID scientists believe their program was an enormous success and have contributed significantly to fighting disease globally, saving lives at home as well as abroad.
Furthermore, it set high ethical and scientific research standards; USAMRIID continues its work toward improved safety procedures; laboratory-acquired infections have become far less frequent over the course of this decade alone.
The Seventh-Day Adventist Church
During the Cold War, more than 2,300 noncombatant conscientious objectors from Seventh-Day Adventist Church volunteered their services by participating in Army medical experiments focused on creating medical countermeasures against Soviet Union bio-warfare capabilities.
Volunteers participated in tests that exposed them to infectious diseases and experimental vaccines – an act they were willing to do out of religious conviction. Today their story lives on through Operation Whitecoat documentary film.
The Seventh-Day Adventist Church is an international Christian organization with roots dating back to Jesus Christ and his second coming. With worldwide presence and providing health-related services such as hospitals and clinics, missionary work and publishing educational material such as books and magazines; its message draws heavily from Daniel and Revelation prophecies as its basis.
Seventh-Day Adventists believe the second coming of Jesus will take place sometime between March and October of 1844, according to William Miller’s teachings.
Miller studied the Bible to gain greater insight into end-time events. Later, in the late 1800s, he started preaching that it would happen on October 22, 1844; this attracted an extensive following among members from Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches alike.
Ken Jones of Collegedale, Tennessee decided to sign up for Project Whitecoat at Fort Detrick. Though unaware of its purpose at first, his decision was motivated by faith and desire to serve his country.
Jones became one of the early volunteers for this research; at that time participants were briefed on experiments, consent forms were signed, and given the option to opt-out if desired.
The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)
Two thousand dedicated Seventh-day Adventists served as human subjects in Operation Whitecoat, conducted at Fort Detrick (a biological development center located just outside Washington DC) over 19 years.
These tests were intended to measure human susceptibility to infection from pathogens and germs, and to test antibiotics and vaccines against disease.
Whitecoat volunteers were exposed to several infectious diseases during this experiment, such as Q fever, yellow fever, tularemia (rabbit fever), Venezuelan equine encephalitis, plague and hepatitis A. Through this research study vaccines for these conditions have been created that continue to be used today.
Although a few volunteers did become sick from participating in these experiments, none died as a result or suffered long-term consequences of taking part.
As soon as Operation Whitecoat concluded in 1973 with the end of military draft eligibility, participants’ files were given to USAMRIID and their facility in Frederick, Maryland has continued studying biological warfare agents and naturally occurring infectious organisms.
The institute continues to devise strategies, products, information, and procedures to defend medical professionals against biowarfare and bioterrorism threats, and also provides highly specialized immunizations and protective equipment to military personnel serving in high-level biocontainment facilities around the globe.
USAMRIID stands out as an institution with its mix of government funding and civilian employees running its laboratories. This allows it to collaborate with institutions inside and outside the military on projects designed to protect soldiers and civilians alike from bacteria and viral infections, with its researchers pioneering state-of-the-art containment labs as well as working on biological warfare agents as well as naturally occurring organisms that pose risks to public health.