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Pesticides and Rachel Carson


Biological weapons and special projects
James Watson Scientist
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EJ Corey was to investigate chemical warfare, and I was to follow our efforts at biological warfare. And I don’t remember the chemical war I know, in the biological weapons the Venezuelan equine encephalitis was weaponised, and at the time of the Cuban missile crisis it was in planes in Florida for deployment against Cuba. So it had gone that far.
And what about the assassination attempts, were you involved in that, was that discussed?
No. I did go, I think, my first tour of Fort Dietrich, they showed me around the buildings, and I said, what’s in that building? And they said, special projects. If you heard the word special projects, then substitute assassination, so this was the, the building which prepared assassination chemicals. And so when I went in there trying to, their object was to get the puffer fish poison available, into weapons of assassination. And they were trained to do chemical synthesis instead of getting it from the puffer fish. And were, Bob Woodward was consulting, them. You know, Harvard’s chemist, they’d gone to him, how would you synthesize the puffer fish for us? And then, then, oh, God, it was in June of ‘63, I once had a date with the daughter of Desmond Fitzgerald, who was, who was the, one of the social registered members of CIA. And by that time he had been given the task by Bobby Kennedy of assassinating Castro. So, I remember talking to Desmond, no, I was telling him of the, that I wouldn’t, that I didn’t like, oh, yeah, yeah, one of the things they had was, well, was staphylococcal enterotoxin. It would just make you vomit and it had never been known, no one had ever died at a barbeque or a picnic. So he was spraying enterotoxin over the rice caddies, paddies of Vietnam. Everyone started throwing up. You just go over and they’re helpless. The trouble was that when you, when the monkeys ingested it by aerosol, they promptly died. So enterotoxin in the lungs is deadly poison. In your stomach it only makes you vomit. I remember telling Desmond, you know, that some of these things that, you know, the agency was hoping to, you know, win wars without killing anyone. That was bacteria like this incapacitating agents. And staph enterotoxin, and Venezuelan encephalitis was being proposed as incapacitating, even though it killed the young and old.
Well, that’s incapacitating.
Yeah, I know. So, but it was interesting because you always had the belief that Kennedy actually would stop such things, so it was the belief that actually his political instinct was the, whereas the military just felt, we will give these weapons for the option of the president to use. And then our job was just to evaluate them as weapons, but never as whether they were politically deployable. We were always asked whether they would work. And I found it impossible to make the distinction, because it was a choice. I was terribly in favor of that staph enterotoxin, until the monkey result came. I pushed it, you know, I thought-
Could we assume all that stuff is gone, deep-sixed?
Oh, I doubt it.
You think it’s still there in a drawer or somewhere?
No, no, no. It’s hard to kill these things.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Walter Gratzer Martin Raff

Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Duration: 5 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010