William C. Patrick III, 84, dies; oversaw Fort Detrick biowarfare effort and weaponization of anthrax and other deadly diseases

William C. Patrick III was sent to Iraq in 1994 to look into alleged covert germ labs.
William C. Patrick III was sent to Iraq in 1994 to look into alleged covert germ labs.
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 9:11 PM

William C. Patrick III, 84, one of the chief scientists at the Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick and who was responsible for overseeing the military's top-secret weaponization of some of the world's deadliest diseases, including anthrax and tularemia, died of bladder cancer Oct. 1 at Citizens Nursing Home in Frederick.

Mr. Patrick held five classified U.S. patents for the process of weaponizing anthrax. He was chief of the development program at Fort Detrick in Frederick for much of the Cold War.

In the 1960s, Mr. Patrick led the highly classified weaponization of tularemia, a disease he considered superior to anthrax as a biological agent because of its potency.

Under Mr. Patrick's direction, scientists at Fort Detrick developed a tularemia agent that, if disseminated by airplane, could cause casualties and sickness over thousands of square miles, according to tests carried out by the U.S. government.

Some experts believed that the research showed biological weapons could be as devastating as a nuclear blast. In a 10,000-square-mile range, the biological weapon had a 90 percent casualty rate and 50 percent fatality rate, capable of killing its hosts within hours of infection.

The Fort Detrick biowarfare program was started in the early 1940s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Allies received intelligence reports that the Germans and Japanese were pursuing biological weapons.

Mr. Patrick joined the effort in 1951 and became chief of the development program in 1965. His team explored the world's deadliest diseases, including Q fever, plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. His staff also devoted attention to anthrax because of its speed in poisoning its host.

In interviews over the years, Mr. Patrick said his development program tested more than 20 anthrax strains to discern the most lethal variety. The deadly spores engineered at Fort Detrick were capable of wafting more than a mile through the air - rendering concrete barriers and other modern military defenses useless against attack.

To disseminate the biological agents, the Fort Detrick scientists hid them in aerosol spray systems inside fountain pens, walking sticks, light bulbs and even in the exhaust pipes of a 1953 Mercury.

They conducted mock attacks in places bustling with people, including the New York subway system and Washington National Airport, in the latter case releasing anthrax simulants hidden in suitcases.

Fort Detrick's biological offensive program ended in 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon renounced biological weapons, most of which were later destroyed. In 1972, the United States signed an international treaty outlawing biological weapons.

Afterward, Mr. Patrick focused on defense against biological weapons, helping to find ways to neutralize the agents he once produced.

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