San Francisco’s famous fog has become a celebrated part of SF living. Residents have even personified the fog, naming it Karl. Most wouldn’t expect Karl to be involved in a “simulated germ-warfare attack,” but he has quite a nasty past. In 1950 the U.S. Military conducted what has been described as “one of the largest human experiments in history,” aided by Bay Area fog.
In September of 1950, without alerting San Francisco residents, the U.S. Navy sprayed a fog of two kinds of bacteria into “Karl.” The bacteria used, Serratia marcescens and Bacillus globigii, were believed to be harmless, but the effects left some residents ill and others dead. The death of Edward Nevin occurred in 1950 after he fell ill with a urinary-tract infection containing Serratia marcescens.
Mr. Nevin was recovering from prostate surgery when he was diagnosed with the infection. The bacteria eventually spread to his heart and he died a few weeks later. This story hits close to home here at the firm, as Edward Nevin is the great grandfather of James Nevin, one of our four partners at Brayton Purcell LLP.
The experiment helped the military to conclude that “a successful BW [biological warfare] attack on this area can be launched from the sea, and that effective dosages can be produced over relatively large areas.” Over the next twenty years, 239 more “germ-warfare” tests would occur in the United States in populated areas, including New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC.
When Edward Nevin’s grandson tried to sue the government for the wrongful death of his grandfather, it was ruled that the U.S. government was immune to a lawsuit for negligence and that they were “justified in conducting tests without subjects’ knowledge.” The effects of the experiment are still seen today, as Serratia marcescens has shown up in Bay Area health crises since the initial spray. Today, the bacteria is known to cause serious, life-threatening illness in patients with compromised immune systems.
Would you ever expect something like your city’s fog to be used in a government experiment that could have deadly effects? Please share your own stories and thoughts in a comment below.