William C. Patrick III died last week. He was responsible for enough bioweaponry to kill every single person on the planet. And several other planets. And then, he spent the rest of his life fighting against his own deadly creations.
To say the least, he was a complicated guy. One of his most notorious (and sadly somewhat recently relevant) projects was weaponised anthrax – a single gallon of which contains enough spores to kill every human being on earth. And he made a lot more than a gallon. He also cooked up some germ bombs you might not be so familiar with, such as the ominous “Q Fever”, which the New York Times says was designed to “cripple foes with chills, coughing, headaches, hallucinations and fevers up to 104 degrees (40C).” (In an interview, however, Patrick confessed his “favourite” was weaponised Tularemia, an obscure microbe beloved for its ability to cause incredible illness – but not death).
And how did Patrick feel about his line of work?
One the one hand, he had a steely, unnerving claim that it was a more humane means of winning wars, as he disclosed in the same interview:
I can make a very good case for biological warfare as a more humane way of fighting war than with the atom bomb and chemical warfare. We can incapacitate a population with less than 1 percent of the people becoming ill and dying. And then we take over facilities that are intact. When you bomb a country, you not only kill people but you destroy the very facilities that are needed to treat them-the electricity, water, all the infrastructure is gone when you bomb.
Luckily, nobody ever had to test this logic.
Then, on the other hand, the Times reveals a jovial, almost maniacal stance on his germ projects: “His business card bore a skull and crossbones, and atop his stationery was a drawing of the Grim Reaper, the scythe labelled ‘Biological Warfare’ and the figure’s outstretched arm sowing germs.” Charming!
And then, in 1969, Nixon’s Pentagon had a change of heart, deciding that the US didn’t need a germ arsenal to face off against the Russians. And with Nixon went Patrick. He spent the rest of his life helping the government devise plans to defend against the exact same sorts of bioattacks he spent the heart of his career making possible, aiding the United Nations expose Saddam Hussein’s plan for an Iraqi germ warfare plan, and helping the FBI respond to the post-9/11 anthrax attacks – murders committed with his own weapon.
And now he’s gone – dead from cancer. It’s hard to eulogise a dude like this, but we think the the Times concludes with all that you need to know: Before shuffling off this germy coil, Patrick “expressed no regrets about his arms work, saying he was comfortable with memories of killing animals and finding new ways to produce death”.
Photo by Marty Katz