ASM and Biological Warfare: A Brief Chronology


13 April, 1942:  The ASM's "War Committee on Bacteriology" is appointed by President Selman Waksman.

See Newsletter of the SAB (NLSAB) 8:2, p. 2: "The duties of the Committee will be threefold: 1) It will act as a clearinghouse for research in the fields of Medical, Industrial and Agricultural Bacteriology, as well as in General Microbiology, pertaining to problems of particular importance in prosecution of the war. 2) It will help to coordinate the activities of various Societies, Committees, Government and Municipal organizations, interested in the many aspects of Bacteriology. 3) It will be prepared to advise government agencies, industrial organizations and other duly credited groups requiring information regarding any branch of Bacteriology and Microbiology, especially on problems related to the war."


The only reference to BW is in a report from Oct. 1943: "On the basis of recommendations made by members of the Committee and by other members of the Society, a program of activities was drawn up to cover the following fields:… 9) [of 9] Bacteriological warfare and the effect of warfare upon essential bacterial processes (gas warfare and soil bacteria)."


In fact, the majority of the Committee's activities had to do with the status of bacteriology as a science, and with the professional status of bacteriologists in regard to the war effort. There may be seeds here of questions regarding certification, which became more overt in the late 40s, and led to the Academy in 1955.


15 May, 1947:  A resolution was introduced from the floor of the General Business Meeting, calling for the international control of biological weapons. This was referred to an ad hoc committee to see if it should be released as coming from the Society; there appears to have been no further action.

"Resolution: Whereas the advances of science and technology have produced weapons of destruction, of which biological warfare is one, which in our professional judgment endanger the survival of modern civilization, and whereas we believe that biological warfare does not lend itself even to the degree of control that atomic warfare does. Our conclusion is that every possible effort should be directed toward building up a system of world-wide cooperation through the United Nations to ensure the world against war. (Signed)

R. Y. Stanier

S. E. Luria

T. E. Anderson

Stuart Mudd

C.-E. A. Winslow"


The Committee appointed to look into this matter consisted of J. Howard Mueller (Chairman), Walter Nungester, Stuart Mudd, with President Thomas Francis, Jr. and Secretary Leland Parr ex officio.


[July, 1947:  4th International Congress of Microbiology passes a resolution condemning biological warfare:

"The Fourth International Congress for Microbiology joins the International Society of Cell Biology in condemning in the strongest possible terms all forms of biological warfare. The Congress considers such barbaric methods as absolutely unworthy of any civilized community and trusts that all Microbiologists throughout the world will do everything in their power to prevent their exploitation."]


April, 1951:  Ad Hoc Committee on Biological Warfare formed.


May, 1951:  This committee reports as "Committee on Information Concerning Civil Defense against Biological Warfare." They also publish a resolution in the Aug., 1951 NLSAB.

From appointment letter from President Nungester: "It is hoped that this committee aided by their consultant [one member was not a member of SAB] will compile a list of questions answers for which seem necessary if bacteriologists throughout the country are to act intelligently in doing their share in the Civilian Defense Program."Their resolution, (NLSAB 17:3, p. 2):

Whereas it has been reported by official government sources that biological warfare might be used and might be an effective means of warfare, and

Whereas members of this Society are being extensively consulted by persons concerned with civil defense seeking specific information on which to base their plans, and

Whereas members of this Society have little detailed information of use in meeting these requests, and

Whereas official published information released up to the present time has been of a more general nature than would be most useful to bacteriologists in meeting these requests for aid in civil defense planning

Therefore, be it resolved that we express the hope that the Civil Defense Administration will make available in the near future such specific technical information as may be properly released, in order to enable bacteriologists and other technical personnel to meet their community responsibilities relative to civilian defense."


The report (8-IE, Folder 2) offers more specifics regarding the constituencies and questions involved.


8 June, 1952:  ASM officials begin to prepare a response to a published letter from M. Frederic Joliot-Curie, who accused the U.S. of using biological weapons in Korea.

Joliot-Curie (1900-1958) is President of the World Council of Peace; his accusation is based on information from the President of the Chinese Committee for the Defense of Peace. It is unclear whether the response was ever sent, or even composed. However, the correspondence includes some thoughtful discussions among Henry Scherp, Richard Donovick and Gail Dack on the whole issue of some sort of Society statement, or the holding of a symposium at the next meeting. Of additional interest in this context is a letter (allegedly) from members of the Polish Microbiological Society to Buchanan and Werkman at Iowa State, and the reply from them. This file also contains a printed reply by Joliot-Curie to a Warren Austin, defending his original accusation. All in 8-IE, Folder 2


1955:  Advisory Committee to the Chemical Corps (Ft. Detrick) established. (The name of this committee changes frequently over the years, as the structure of command at Ft. Detrick changes.)

Council Minutes, May 8, 1955: "President Halvorson presented a request, from the Chemical Corp of the Army, that a committee be appointed by the Society to advise the Chemical Corp on microbiological questions. The American Chemical Society has appointed such an advisory committee to the mutual satisfaction and benefit of both the A.C.S. and the armed forces." The committee's reports indicate primarily that they met at Ft. Detrick, spoke with commanders and scientists regarding "problems, " and made recommendations. Perhaps because members required a security clearance, the specifics of their activities were not made available to the general SAB membership. It is apparent, however, that at least part of their advice had to do with the professional status and problems of Ft. Detrick scientists.


By 1967, there is a bit if defensiveness detectable: see the somewhat lengthy report in ASM News 33:3, p. 20-21. A one-sentence paragraph reads: "The committee has no responsibilities regarding the moral, political, or military aspects of BW."


7 April, 1967:  Northern California Branch requests information on why the Ft. Detrick committee exists, and what are its purposes.

The apparent precipitating factor here is an article by one Elinor Langer (no citation offered) titled "Chemical and Biological Warfare: The Research Program." See Northern California Branch Newsletters for March, October and November of 1967. There was apparently a special meeting of the Branch, with representatives from the national Society.


May, 1967:  A motion from the floor at the Annual Business Meeting to disband the Ft. Detrick Advisory Committee was defeated, twice.

Copy of the motion is in 8-IA, Folder 1. It was sponsored "by a group of ASM members." Contact person was Dr. I. Smith, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx. Discussion at the Annual Business Meeting is summarized in some detail in ASM News 33:3, p. 16.


15 March, 1968:  The Advisory Committee to Ft. Detrick recommends that the committee be dissolved. They cite their lack of influence with the command, not ethical or moral grounds.

The main complaints are that the committee meets too infrequently to be an effective technical advisory panel, and that Army Department reorganization removed the chance for the Committee to have real influence because it no longer reported directly to the Chief Chemical Officer. "We feel that our Committee (and thus our Society) is now in the uncomfortable position of being expected to furnish technical advice it cannot give and suspected of playing a role in governmental policy it does not have." The suggestion is made that the Detrick Technical Director work to establish a panel of non-governmental scientific consultants that will be able to work more effectively than the Committee. The point is made that such a panel would have no official connection to the Society, although many of its members would also belong to SAB.


The second major proposal of the report is the formation of an SAB Committee on Public Policy. [A Public Affairs Committee was appointed in 1973; the Public and Scientific Affairs Board was established in 1979]


4 May, 1968:  Dissolution of the Ft. Detrick Advisory Committee is approved by the CPC. The decision is sustained by the full Council the next day.

President Luria mentions the dissolution in his Presidential Address, and it makes the newspapers; also Science, May 24.


8 May, 1968:  Under urging from Dr. Merrill Snyder, the Business meeting votes that the Advisory Committee should be reinstated.

Snyder memorandum is in many locations in the Archives, e.g., 8-IA, Folder 1, which also contains verbatim transcript of discussion at the meeting. Of course, the Business Meeting doesn't have the authority to do anything other than make a recommendation to Council


1 October, 1968:  Mail vote of the full Council upholds the dissolution.


April, 1970:  Council approves statement endorsing President Nixon's ending of US BW Research.

J. Roger Porter and Salvador Luria were to be ASM representatives to the Biological Warfare Colloquium at the X International Congress of Microbiology. The statement to be made by themon behalf of the Society follows: "The Council of the Society affirms that the health of science is enhanced by non-secret research and free movement of scientists. Furthermore, the Council affirms support of President Nixon's action on November 25, 1969 and February 14, 1970 to end our involvement in the production and use of biological weapons. Because of our concern for humanitarian application of microbiological science we urge that all nations convert existing offensive biological warfare facilities to peaceful uses."


December, 1970:  Resolution on Biological Warfare adopted by the X International Congress is accepted by CPC.

This resolution is appended to the rather lengthy report of Porter and Luria. See ASM News 37:2, 1971, p. 16-17. No official action is taken on this resolution at the 1971 Council/CPC meeting.


May, 1978:  Policy on social, moral and political issues is adopted by Council.

Motivated primarily by non-BW controversies (plight of Soviet scientists, boycotting, for purposes of ASM meetings, states which have not ratified ERA, etc.), President Rasmussen introduces a proposed policy governing the Society's approach to these issues. After considerable discussion, the following resolution is passed: "Recognizing the objectives of the Society as prescribed in the ASM Constitution and the legal obligation of the elected officers, the CPC, and Council in directing the Society in accordance with these objectives, the following principle is established for guidance in dealing with various social, moral, and political issues.It shall be the position of the Society to act only on those issues in which microbiology is a major component, or where the knowledge of microbiology is important in reaching a sound decision."See Minutes (ASM News 44:8, 1978, p. 404), article by officers (ASM News 44:9, 469-71) and letter from Lawrence Sturman (ASM News 45:1, 1979, 14-17)


1985-87:  1970 Resolution on BW reaffirmed.   

March, 1985: At the PSAB meeting, Harlyn Halvorson reports that ASM has been asked by a member from Tulane for its position on BW. Halvorson agrees to work with AAM ChairWilliam Hausler to develop a group to review this The draft statement offered in March, 1986 essentially affirms the 1970 resolution. See also Halvorson's response to a letter to the editor, ASM News 53:3, 1987, p. 121


1988-:  BW becomes topic at meetings.   

During this period, the general topic of BW is addressed at a number of ASM meetings: 

  • 1988 GM: Roundtable: "Defense-Related Biological Research."
  • 1991: Conference at UMBC: The Microbiologist and Biological Defense Research: Ethics, Politics and Security."
  • 1991 ICAAC: Symposium: "Biological Warfare."
  • 1992 GM: President's Forum: "Biological Warfare: An Old Problem - Future Concerns."


May, 1993:  Council approves "Scientific Principles to Guide Biological Weapons Verification."

Document presented by PSAB Chair Ken Berns. Copy in 6-IIA, Folder 6, 1993. See also letter from Nancy Connell, with reply from Berns, ASM News 60:9, 1994, p. 455


December, 1994:  PSAB Task Force on BW established.

Reports are in 1996-2001 PSAB agenda packs, 6-IIA, Folder 2. See also Public Affairs reports in ASM News, as well as various articles there: in the years following the Gulf War, BW becomes a regular topic.


2001:  Society provides access to online resources concerning Bio Warfare. Click here for current online resources:  Biosecurity


2003:  ASM Holds First Annual Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting.

The American Society for Microbiology launched the annual ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting as a forum for the discussion of new data from the research of microbiological sciences related to biodefense and bioterrorism, the latest information on preventative modalities, therapeutics, and clinical diagnoses related to biothreat agents, and the most recent trends in the management and planning of biodefense programstopic.  Click Here for additional information: ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting - Dates and Locations