Jeanne Guillemin, who exposed Soviet anthrax lab, dies at 76

Jeanne Guillemin, who exposed Soviet anthrax lab, dies at 76

After an anthrax outbreak killed scores of people in 1979, she showed how even a tiny amount of a biological warfare agent could threaten a population. 

This obituary first appeared in the New York Times and is available here.

December 22, 2019 | New York Times
Dr. Jeanne Guillemin was an expert on biological warfare and sought to expose how government programs were misusing biomedical science.Credit...Jean-Baptiste Guillemin
Katharine Q “Kit” Seelye
December 22, 2019
New York Times

Jeanne Guillemin, an eminent medical anthropologist and scientific sleuth who helped expose a secret biological warfare lab in the Soviet Union as the source of a lethal anthrax outbreak, died on Nov 15 at her home in Cambridge, Mass. She was 76. Her husband, Matthew Meselson, said the cause was cancer.

Dr. Guillemin (pronounced GILL-men) was a prominent advocate for curbing the use of biological and chemical weapons. In the 1980s, she and her husband, a world-renowned molecular biologist at Harvard, undertook a series of investigations into biological warfare and how government programs were misusing biomedical science.

One of their most important investigations took place in 1992 in Russia, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Along with a small team of American and Russian scientists, they examined 66 of perhaps 100 anthrax deaths that occurred in 1979 in the Ural city of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg.

The Soviet government claimed that the deaths were caused by the consumption of anthrax-tainted meat. American intelligence officials were skeptical, suspecting the anthrax  was the result of  Soviet experiments with biological weapons in violation of a 1972 international treaty.

Dr Guillemin went door to door interviewing family members and survivors, establishing where they lived and worked. She plotted them on a map, which showed  that on April 2, 1979, most townspeople who would soon start falling ill had been in a narrow zone directly downwind from a Cold War-era military research lab known as Compound 19.

Her information, combined with meteorological data, pinpointed the lab as the source of the anthrax release. The pathogen contaminated humans, sheep and cows in its path and remains the largest documented outbreak of human inhalation anthrax in the world.

Dr Guillemin, Dr Meselson and their team reported their findings in the Nov 18, 1994, issue of the journal Science. They did not determine what had caused the anthrax release; subsequent reports said it was the accidental failure to replace an air filter at the plant.

But their report was significant because it showed that even a tiny amount of a biological warfare agent could threaten a population — in this case up to 30 miles away.

The scientists estimated, based on experiments with monkeys, that the amount of anthrax spores that were released  may have been less than, and possibly a lot less than, one gram, or about a quarter of a teaspoon of salt.

And if the wind had been blowing in the opposite direction that day — toward the city of Sverdlovsk — deaths could have been in the hundreds of thousands.

Dr Guillemin described the episode in “ANTHRAX: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak” (1999). It was among several books she wrote about her medical sleuthing and helped establish her as an authority on biological agents.

When envelopes containing anthrax were mailed within the United States shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, the news media sought out Dr Guillemin for her expertise. Those anthrax attacks killed five people, sickened 17 others and terrorized the nation, which was still reeling from 9/11.

In the midst of that hysteria, Dr Guillemin was a voice of calm, saying the anthrax attacks were probably the work of one person and not likely to lead to mass deaths.

“I think we shouldn’t panic,” she told CNN in October 2001. “We should go about our business with reasonable alertness and prudence and not in a state of fear. I know a lot about anthrax, and I feel that we are not at great risk for a large epidemic of it.”

A nearly eight-year FBI investigation, the largest into a bioweapons attack in American history, concluded that one man, Dr Bruce Ivins, a troubled Army biodefense expert, had acted alone in carrying out the crimes, which became known as Amerithrax.

Jean Elizabeth Garrigan, who later changed the spelling of her first name to Jeanne, was born in Brooklyn on March 6, 1943. Her father, James Philip Garrigan, was a businessman and her mother, Mary Eileen (Harley) Garrigan, a homemaker.

They moved to Rutherford, N.J., where Jean was educated by Dominican nuns. Her husband said the nuns gave her a strong foundation in morality and instilled in her “a feeling that the world should be civil.”

She received her bachelor’s degree in social psychology from Harvard in 1968 and her doctorate in sociology and anthropology from Brandeis in 1973.

Her first marriage, in 1963 to the painter Robert Guillemin, ended in divorce. (He died in 2015.) They had two sons, John and Robert, whom she raised for a time as a single mother. She married Dr. Meselson in 1986.

The couple spent their summers in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod, where they hosted a regular salon that brought together humanists and scientists. In Cambridge, Dr Guillemin was a member of a writing group with four other women who met every month for 30 years to discuss their works in progress.

In addition to her husband and her sons, she is survived by a stepdaughter, Zoe Meselson Forbes; two sisters, Patricia and Eileen Garrigan; a brother, Russell Garrigan; and five grandchildren. Another brother, Brian Garrigan, died in 2018, as did another stepdaughter, Amy Meselson.

Dr Guillemin was a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston College, where she taught for 33 years. She was also a senior fellow in the security studies program at MIT from 1999 until her death.

While at MIT, she established an endowment at the MIT Center for International Studies to support female doctoral candidates and “energize their sense of inquiry and search for knowledge.”

After her Soviet experience with anthrax, she wrote two more related books: “Biological Weapons: From State-sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism” (2005), which examined how the United States, the Soviet Union and other nations developed anthrax and other microbes as strategic weapons, and “American Anthrax: Fear, Crime, and the Investigation of the Nation’s Deadliest Bioterror Attack” (2011).

Her last book was “Hidden Atrocities: Japanese Germ Warfare and American Obstruction of Justice at the Tokyo Trial” (2017). It described Imperial Japan’s little-known use of biological weapons against China in the 1940s and its experimentation on humans.

The book asserts that during the Tokyo war crimes trials from 1946-48, American officials  suppressed evidence of Japan’s biological weapons program because they were conducting their own secret biowarfare research and wanted to ensure that the United States and not the Soviets would benefit from Japan’s technology and expertise.

In a blurb for the book, the medical ethicist Arthur Caplan wrote that it “provides a long overdue scholarly remedy to the disappearance from history of Japan’s germ-warfare program.” Thanks to Dr Guillemin, he added, “the reasons this indefensible omission occurred are lucidly and skillfully presented.”