William Patrick, authority on biological warfare; at 84

Dr. William C. Patrick III held a bottle showing what the chemical anthrax may look like in Washington in 1999. Dr. William C. Patrick III held a bottle showing what the chemical anthrax may look like in Washington in 1999. (Joe Marquette/Associated Press/File)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post / October 6, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

WASHINGTON — William C. Patrick III — who was responsible for overseeing the military’s top-secret weaponization of some of the world’s deadliest diseases, including anthrax and tularemia — died of bladder cancer Friday at Citizens Nursing Home in Frederick, Md. He was 84.

Mr. Patrick, one of the chief scientists at the Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., held five classified US patents for the process of weaponizing anthrax. He was chief of the development program at Fort Detrick for much of the Cold War.

In the 1960s, Mr. Patrick led the highly classified weaponization of tularemia, a disease he considered superior to anthrax as a biological agent because of its potency.

Under Mr. Patrick’s direction, scientists at Fort Detrick developed a tularemia agent that, if disseminated by airplane, could cause casualties and sickness over thousands of square miles, according to tests carried out by the US government.

Some specialists believed that the research showed that biological weapons could be as devastating as a nuclear blast. In a 10,000-square-mile range, the biological weapon had a 90 percent casualty rate and 50 percent fatality rate, capable of killing its hosts within hours of infection.

The Fort Detrick biowarfare program was started in the early 1940s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Allies received intelligence reports that the Germans and Japanese were pursuing biological weapons.

Mr. Patrick joined the effort in 1951 and became chief of the development program in 1965. His team explored the world’s deadliest diseases, including Q fever, plague, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. His staff also devoted attention to anthrax because of its speed in poisoning its host.

In interviews over the years, Mr. Patrick said his development program tested more than 20 anthrax strains to discern the most lethal variety. The deadly spores engineered at Fort Detrick were capable of wafting more than a mile through the air, rendering concrete barriers and other modern military defenses useless against attack.

To disseminate the biological agents, the Fort Detrick scientists hid them in aerosol spray systems inside fountain pens, walking sticks, light bulbs, and even in the exhaust pipes of a 1953 Mercury.

They conducted mock attacks in places bustling with people, including the New York subway system and Washington National Airport, in the latter case releasing anthrax simulants hidden in suitcases.

Fort Detrick’s biological offensive program ended in 1969, when President Nixon renounced biological weapons, most of which were later destroyed. In 1972, the United States signed an international treaty outlawing biological weapons. Afterward, Mr. Patrick focused on defense against biological weapons, helping to find ways to neutralize the agents he once produced.

William Capers Patrick III was born in Ridgeland, S.C., and grew up in Furman, S.C.

He served in the Army during World War II and became fascinated with penicillin, a newly produced drug given to soldiers to prevent infection. This led to a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of South Carolina in 1948 and a master’s degree in microbiology from the University of Tennessee in 1949.

After working for an Indiana company that produced antibiotics, Mr. Patrick was recruited to the Army’s biowarfare efforts by a former professor at Tennessee.

After retiring in 1986, Mr. Patrick remained one of the world’s foremost specialists on biological warfare and defense and served as a consultant to the CIA, the FBI, and the US military. His business card was adorned with a skull and crossbones.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Patrick led the debriefing of Soviet defector Ken Alibek, who as Kanatjan Alibekov was the deputy chief of the Soviet biowarfare program.

In the mid-2000s, the FBI sought Mr. Patrick’s biological weapons expertise for the investigation of the anthrax attacks along the East Coast. A few years earlier, he had been commissioned to write a report on the effectiveness of an anthrax attack spread through the mail system. In the report, Mr. Patrick described how an envelope laced with 2.5 grams of anthrax could do significant harm by direct and indirect contact.

The anthrax attacker, who authorities said claimed might have studied Mr. Patrick’s report as a “blueprint,’’ used about the same amount to kill five people and sicken 13 others.