Uncovering A Deadly Truth
Guillemin's book recounts Russian anthrax tragedy

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

    Its generic name sounds innocuous, even banal, but the Russian military base known as Compound 19 is synonymous with one of the most frightening tragedies of the Cold War era: an outbreak of anthrax in 1979 that killed at least 64 people and hundreds of livestock in the city of Sverdlovsk.

    In 1992, Prof. Jeanne Guillemin (Sociology) accompanied a team of doctors and researchers to Russia to investigate the events and the controversy surrounding them. Interviewing survivors, victims' family members and friends, and Russian officials, Guillemin and her colleagues uncovered evidence that the sickness was not caused by contaminated meat, as the former Soviet Union had claimed. The team, which published its findings in Science magazine, instead linked the epidemic to an infectious aerosol which escaped from Compound 19's biological weapons laboratory.

    In her new book, Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, Guillemin offers an in-depth account of the inquiry. Using a candid first-person, present-tense narrative style, she evokes heartbreaking recollections by bereaved men and women, frustrating exchanges with a still-formidable bureaucracy, and impressions of a changing yet ever-mystifying Russia.


Guillemin's intent is not simply to set the historical record straight. Concern over the dangers of biological weapons has mounted since the Sverdlovsk epidemic, she says, driven to a great degree by the government and mass media, and anthrax in particular has become a de facto instrument of terror and intimidation. People deserve to know the plain truth about this issue, Guillemin says, and thus prevent, or at least minimize such tragedies.

    "It is not so much the domestic attacks of anthrax or smallpox we should fear as the lack of international controls of hostile states seeking to build a biological weapons arsenal," explained Guillemin, who notes that more than 11,000 Americans have been subjected to anthrax hoaxes since 1998. "Ordinary citizens, including members of the armed forces and their families, should know the risks - not the hype - about anthrax and other such weapons.
 

Prof. Jeanne Guillemin (Sociology) wanted to tell the stories of Russian people who became victims because ìthey were not allowed to know. They trusted the state and the state failed them.î (Photo by John Guillemin)

    "That's the sort of information I sought to provide through this book," she added, "along with the stories of Russian people who became victims because they were not allowed to know. They trusted the state, and the state failed them."

    Those stories, told by spouses, siblings and friends, put a human face on the tragedy, and provide an emotional presence for the book. Within a matter of days, even hours, men and women who had been healthy and in the prime of life were incapacitated and had to be hospitalized. Families were often unable to obtain information about their loved one's condition until only after death had occurred.

    The pain of this loss became magnified. Authorities refused to release the remains to their families - depriving them of the opportunity to perform traditional pre-burial rituals - ordered victims' houses disinfected, and family members to be given medication, with little or no explanation other than the "tainted-meat" cover story.

    Guillemin relates these anecdotes with an eye for detail, such as the note scrawled by one man in a hospital isolation ward pleading with his wife not to leave him because "we may never look into each other's eyes again."

    Investigating the epidemic in Sverdlovsk - which reverted to its historical name of Yekaterinburg after the Soviet Union's collapse - affirmed for Guillemin her discipline's application beyond the academic realm.

    "It's real social science," she explained. "The project involved taking evidence from a number of sources, whether through personal interviews, autopsies, or weather patterns, to explain a series of events and, in so doing, settle a controversy. It may not be what people think of when they hear the word 'sociology,' but it does provide a good example of how versatile and valuable the sociological approach can be."

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