Last night, some friends and I were talking about conspiracy theories and the U.S. government, which led my friend, Greg, to tell us about Operation Sea-Spray. In September 1950, the U.S. Navy sprayed a cloud of the microbe, Serratia marcescens into the air two-miles off the coast of San Francisco in order to see how susceptible we might be to germ warfare.
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on this logic. In order to see how susceptible we were to germ warfare, the U.S. government decided to unleash germ warfare on its own citizens.
In fairness to the government, they chose a “harmless” microbe. You’ve probably seen Serratia marcescens before. It’s the same microbe that forms pink streaks in your toilet and shower when you neglect to clean them.
Except that Serratia marcescens isn’t harmless. Not quite, at least. As this 2015 Discover Magazine article explained:
A week after the spraying, eleven patients were admitted to the now defunct Stanford University Hospital in San Francisco with severe urinary tract infections, resistant to the limited antibiotics available in that era. One gentlemen, recovering from prostate surgery, developed complications of heart infection as Serratia colonized his heart valves. His would be the only death during the aftermath of the experiment.
Stanford University Hospital doctors culturing the patients’ urine on petri dishes found an unusual and unexpected discovery: microbes blushing with a cherry red pigment. Infection with Serratia was so rare that the outbreak was extensively investigated by the University to identify the origins of this scarlet letter bug. Though the source of this unusual organism could not be located despite an exhaustive epidemiological search, Stanford published a report on the outbreak, noting that “the isolation of a red pigment-producing bacterium from the urine of human beings was of interest, at first, as a curious clinical observation. Later, the repeated occurrence of urinary-tract infection by this organism, with bacteremia in two patients and death in one, indicated the potential clinical importance of this group of bacteria.” It was the first recorded outbreak of Serratia in the history of microbiology.
The government didn’t disclose these experiments — a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code — publicly for another 27 years.
There’s a reason why people don’t trust institutions and are susceptible to conspiracy theories. If you want to undo the damage from incidents like these, you have to acknowledge what you’ve done in the past and work intentionally to rebuild trust