William C. Patrick, III loved his life in the shadows. Though his name and face were not well known, even to many in national security circles, Bill Patrick was for over 50 years the government’s “go-to guy” on biological weapons.
When Federal Bureau of Investigation agents needed help proving in the mid-1980s that followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had poisoned over 750 people in Oregon by sprinkling salmonella in salad bars and coffee creamers in restaurants along the interstate highway—the first large-scale use of germs by terrorists on American soil—they called Bill Patrick. In 1990, as the United States and its coalition allies prepared to force Iraq out of Kuwait, Patrick’s evaluation of the risk of a germ attack prompted the American military to vaccinate tens of thousands of troops against anthrax in a crash program. In 1992, when the Central Intelligence Agency needed to vet Ken Alibek, a senior defector from the Soviet Union’s secret, illegal germ-weapons program—then the world’s largest, deadliest effort to produce and store bio-weapons of mass destruction—it called Bill Patrick. His reports on the credibility of Alibek’s claims that Moscow had secretly produced hundreds of tons of anthrax, smallpox, and plague germs for use against the United States and its allies in case of war led American intelligence to raise an alarm about the secret Soviet program. In 1994, when United Nations inspectors wanted to know whether a vast factory complex in Iraq was a bio-weapons plant, they called Patrick. His work helped show that Iraq’s claims that the facility’s microbe driers were intended to make herbicides for agriculture were bogus, in violation of Iraq’s UN commitments. A year later, he worked with American authorities in tracking the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which had killed a dozen people and injured thousands by releasing nerve gas in Tokyo’s subways. Patrick helped show that the cult had already attempted to kill tens of thousands when it staged a series of failed germ attacks against two American naval bases near Tokyo and other targets.
And when Bob Stephens, who worked for a Florida-based tabloid, became the first of five people to die of pulmonary anthrax just weeks after 9/11 in the nation’s worst germ-weapons attack, Bill Patrick examined the anthrax and advised the FBI on likely culprits.
Having spent much of his life designing and making the germs that the United States was prepared to use against the Soviets and other foreign enemies, Patrick continued doing defensive work at the U.S. Army’s sprawling germ-research base at Fort Detrick after President Nixon suddenly and unilaterally ended America’s germ-weapons program in 1969. From premier bio-warrior, responsible for the lab’s “product-development division,” he became Mr. Bio-Defender.
It was not an easy transition, he told me years after leaving the lab in 1986. He was still unconvinced that the Russians, Iraqis, and numerous other potential foes had dismantled their germ-weapons programs. America remained at risk, he would tell those willing to listen. At 59, he launched a one-man campaign to warn government officials, policy experts, the media, and the public about the risks of germ terrorism and how best to prevent and combat it.
That was how we met. Bill Broad, a science journalist and then my colleague at the New York Times, and I went to see him in 1997 at his comfortable home atop a wooded hill in Frederick, Maryland, not far from the government bio-lab where he had worked for over 35 years. As we sipped tea on his porch and munched sandwiches prepared by his wife, Virginia, his dog, Billy the Kid, tried snatching chips from our plates. Strains of classical music filled the air and hummingbirds buzzed above the bird feeders he and Ginny had set at strategic spots on the terrace.
Then this seemingly cheerful father of two led us downstairs to his basement office, as he had legions of other students of the black bio-arts, to give us a PowerPoint tutorial on how germ weapons were made, stored, and distributed. He patiently answered our questions about how bacteria, viruses, and other deadly pathogens could be used as weapons of mass destruction. Near the end of our session, he pulled a garden sprayer out of a green duffel bag and vigorously pumped it several times, producing a large cloud of fine particles that hung in the air like fog. If this were anthrax, he told us, we would all soon be dead. Offering me a memento of our class, he put a vial of the simulated anthrax in my purse and scribbled his home number on the stationery of his one-man consulting firm, Biothreats Assessment. It was topped with an image of the Grim Reaper. A skull and crossbones were engraved on the business card he handed me. Call any time, he said merrily.
And call we did. On countless occasions, Bill Patrick was an invaluable source of biological history, analysis, folklore, and wisdom. When I received a letter filled with powder during the anthrax letter attack after 9/11, Bill was on the phone to calm me down, assuring me that the powder that had tumbled out of the envelope onto my clothes and my desk, given my description of it, was most likely a hoax, not some of the real anthrax which wound up killing five and infecting 17. And when the FBI began to suspect him as a potential culprit in its hapless “Amerithrax” investigation of the anthrax attacks—a travesty that the Bureau eventually undid by naming another Fort Detrick veteran, Bruce Ivins, as the likely perpetrator—I tried commiserating with him as he had with me.
It’s hard to imagine that Bill Broad, Stephen Engelberg, and I could have written our book on biological terrorism, Germs, without Patrick’s authoritative help and guidance. So when I found his calm message on my answering machine in New York five months ago, informing me that he had untreatable, metastasized cancer, I was heartbroken.
Last June, I traveled to Frederick, Maryland for a ceremony honoring him at the new bio-research complex that his tireless campaign against the threat of germ warfare had helped build. Then in a wheelchair, Patrick was nevertheless thrilled to be invited to visit the crown jewel of the federal government’s vast new germ-research complex, the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center—a state-of-the-art, $150 million, 160,000-square-foot headquarters that opened its doors in March 2009. Among others, NBACC director J. Patrick Fitch and former Secretary of the Navy Richard J. Danzig, another biodefense expert, praised Patrick’s work and his patriotism. The tribute came in the form of annual awards to be given in his name to researchers at the lab who do outstanding work. Patrick got to congratulate the initial recipients himself. “You’re a legend here, Dr. Patrick,” one of the young researchers told him, shaking his hand and accepting the prize.
In his day, Bill Patrick, too, had won prizes. He received six sustained superior performance awards, the last in 1980, a special service award, a CIA Meritorious Citation, and the Order of Military Medical Merit. A coauthor of the widely read Jane’s Chem-Bio Handbook (Jane’s Information Group, 1998), he held three patents and shared two others. But since most of his work at Fort Detrick was highly classified, the patents remain secret.
Bill Patrick, 84, died Friday, October 1, 2010.