Friday Takeaway: Anthrax and me

For the Bulletin
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Only when individuals start saying no to immorality will the world become a better place. When a person acts in conscience, it changes not only the world for the better but also the person.

Students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst came to me in 1989 to discuss Pentagon-funded studies of anthrax on campus. The students had searched their consciences and decided that the UMass anthrax studies were immoral.

We met in the American Friends Service Committee office in my Northampton home to discern how the students, AFSC, and I might resist these studies.

The students felt that the late Curtis Blaine Thorne, professor of microbiology, had undertaken research in order to weaponize anthrax. The federal Center for Disease Control identifies anthrax as a dangerous agent likely to be used in bioterrorism. “Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, would be one of the biological agents most likely to be used,” according to the CDC. “Biological agents are germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops.”

The international community banned the use of chemical and biological weapons after World War I and reinforced the ban in 1972 and 1993 by prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling and transfer of such weapons, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It didn’t take long for the students and other Pioneer Valley residents to act. The May 31, 1989 “New York Times” reports:

 “Even for the Amherst campus, where protests are not exactly rare, the events of this spring have been unusual. The demonstrators, attacking not only the Pentagon research but also, to a lesser degree, what they see as societal racism and sexism, have taken over campus buildings at least four times this month, held a weeklong hunger strike, and staged a mock wedding between the university and the U.S. Defense Department.

“There have been 154 trespassing arrests,” the Times report continued. “Some students have been taken into custody two or three times, and several sympathetic townspeople who occupied the university chancellor’s office were also seized.”

In order to support the 1989 protests at UMass, I asked the lawyer Cristobal Bonifaz to read and provide us with a copy of Dr. Thorne’s contract with the Pentagon. The contract was, of course, a matter of public record between a federal agency and the university. Dr. Thorne insisted that his studies involved studies of potential enemy use of anthrax and said, therefore, that his studies supported defense.

After reading the contract, Mr. Bonifaz supported the conclusion that Dr. Thorne worked on weaponized anthrax on behalf of the U.S. government. MIT’s Dr. Jonathan King, founder of Science for the People, agreed with Mr. Bonifaz in support of the students.

Many students who acted in conscience at UMass in the 1980s against weaponized anthrax had participated in Dr. Terisa Turner’s seminar concentrating on Marxist political and social theories.

Although townspeople asked the Amherst Board of Health to outlaw anthrax research on the UMass campus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the board refused on the grounds that there was no danger to townspeople. The UMass Faculty Senate voted to support Dr. Thorne’s research in the name of academic freedom.

Nevertheless, protests against Dr. Thorne’s studies continued. Eventually, while never acknowledging that he worked on weaponized anthrax, Dr. Thorne gave up Pentagon funding for his work.

In 2014, Dr. Sigrid Schmeltzer of the UMass history faculty invited me to participate in Dr. King’s Science for the People program. Recently, Dr. Turner visited me and gave me a copy of the book “Takeover,” which she edited with Timothy A. Belknap. A collection of documents relating to the 1980s and 1990s protests at UMass, “Takeover” was published by the International Working Group, Inc.

Students, residents of the Pioneer Valley and I acted in conscience during protests against 1980s and 1990s Pentagon-funded studies of anthrax at UMass. Eventually, Dr. Thorne gave up the funding, and surely each of us who acted grew in our understanding of conscience and morality.

A 1977 Gazette article described Frances Crowe as “a long-time anti-war activist.” The founder of the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, Crowe continues her pioneering peace work today.