The Efforts of WHO and Pugwash to Eliminate Chemical and Biological Weapons -- a Memoir

By Kaplan, Martin M. | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, February 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Efforts of WHO and Pugwash to Eliminate Chemical and Biological Weapons -- a Memoir

Kaplan, Martin M., Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Voir page 154 le resume en francais. En la pagina 155 figura un resumen en espanol.


Growing up in a large American city--Philadelphia--in the 1920s, one could not but observe the ravages of mustard and chlorine gases among soldiers who had served in France during the First World War. The gaunt faces and incessant coughing of those veterans as they trudged along in commemorative parades remain vividly in my memory. Later, in the mid1930s, newspapers displayed graphic pictures of the havoc wrought by the use of mustard gas by Italian forces in Ethiopia. During the same era college courses in political science referred to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting the use of bacteriological and chemical weapons. All these events made a strong impression and sensitized me to the issues surrounding those weapons.

In the early 1950s, I was a staff member of the World Health Organization and later in that decade I became actively involved in the problems of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) at the Third Pugwash Conference, in Austria (1). This involvement with both WHO and Pugwash[2] has continued up to the present. The contributions of the two organizations to the elimination of these weapons of mass destruction will be highlighted here in the form of a memoir recalling some of the outstanding personalities involved.

Alleged use of biological weapons in the Korean War

In the early 1950s as a microbiologist-epidemiologist in the Division of Communicable Diseases (DCD) of WHO, my attention was drawn to the issue of biological weapons (BW) when, during the Korean War, China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea accused UN forces under USA leadership of using BW (2). This would have been a serious violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 (3), which had been ratified by a number of countries supporting the UN forces (the United States did not ratify the Protocol until 1975). These accusations placed the UN and the USA in an invidious position, particularly when "scientific" evidence was produced by China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This so-called proof included photographs of infected rats and fleas presumed to be carrying the plague bacillus which, it was alleged, had been dropped from enemy aircraft along with other microbes such as anthrax, cholera, and the agents causing meningitis and encephalitis. Gruesome pictures of human victims were published along with claims supporting the accusations by some scientists of both Communist and non-Communist countries. The USA and allies in the UN forces rejected these charges vehemently and their own investigations indicated that the disease outbreaks were the result of existing endemic factors rather than of newly introduced microbial agents (2,3).

The responsible officer in WHO at that time was Assistant Director-General Sir Sahib Singh Sokhey, a former Major-General in the medical services of the British Army in India and a bacteriologist and expert on plague. Before joining WHO he had been Director of the Haffkine Institute in Bombay, which had developed and produced a vaccine against plague as well as other biological preparations. Sokhey's short stature, erect military bearing and rapid strides were noticeable at a distance.

The Director-General of WHO was Dr Brock Chisholm, a Canadian psychiatrist. He had served as a Brigadier and Director-General of Medical Services in the Canadian army during the Second World War, and thereby been involved in BW matters. A restrained and soft speaker, in meetings Chisholm spoke without notes and usually convinced his audience to accept without serious opposition the points he wished to make. He often recounted his role in spreading word to the Nazis through intelligence services that if they dared to use biological weapons against the Allies they would be subjected to terrible reprisals with similar weapons. This threat could have been partly responsible for Hitler's apparent reluctance to allow German scientists to develop these weapons.

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The Efforts of WHO and Pugwash to Eliminate Chemical and Biological Weapons -- a Memoir


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