Anthrax scientist’s disquieting descent
Bioterror suspect developed vaccine
WASHINGTON – For most of his career, he was a casting agent’s vision of a bench scientist: shy, eccentric, nerdy, soft-spoken. But this spring, with the FBI closing in on him, Bruce E. Ivins’ life took a dark turn that frightened his closest friends.
In March, police officers summoned to a quiet Frederick, Md., neighborhood found the 62-year-old microbiologist unconscious in his home. Four months later, he was admitted to a psychiatric clinic after making wild threats to “take out” co-workers at the Army research institute where he kept his lab. Then, a week ago, his therapist urgently petitioned a judge for protection from Ivins. She described a man spiraling out of control, making “homicidal threats, actions, plans.”
His death Tuesday from an apparent drug overdose was followed by a revelation even more jarring to those who knew him: Ivins had been implicated in the 2001 anthrax attacks, one of the FBI’s biggest unsolved mysteries and most baffling technical cases. Ivins, a leading expert on anthrax vaccines, was on the verge of being indicted in the case, according to officials familiar with the investigation, and killed himself by swallowing a large quantity of prescription-strength acetaminophen.
The allegations of a possible link to the case known as “Amerithrax” dumbfounded friends and co-workers who knew Ivins as a gentle family man who raised two children in Frederick, volunteered for charities and played keyboards for the local Catholic church. His work with the deadly anthrax bacteria was devoted to developing more effective vaccines that could save lives in a future biological attack. “He was passionate about it – he really cared,” said a scientist who wrote studies with Ivins.
Yet, slowly over the past two years, FBI investigators began to focus on Ivins under the theory that he had used his knowledge of anthrax bacteria to pull off the nation’s deadliest episode of biological terrorism. As a researcher for the Army’s main lab for studying bioterrorism agents, Ivins had access to anthrax bacteria, including the specific strain of bacillus anthracis used in the attacks on media outlets and congressional offices in the fall of 2001. His expertise eventually earned him a front-row seat for the FBI’s investigation, as he was called upon to help the bureau with its analysis of the wispy powder used in the attacks.
Despite the allegations – and even after Ivins’ apparent plunge into mental illness – longtime friends and colleagues say it is inconceivable that Ivins could have been a bioterrorist. Many contend that he was driven to depression and suicide because of months of hounding by federal investigators.
“He just looked worried, depressed, anxious, way turned into himself,” recalled W. Russell Byrne, an infectious-disease specialist who last saw Ivins on a recent Sunday at St. John the Evangelist, the Roman Catholic church in Frederick to which they both belonged. “It would be overstating it to say he looked like a guy who was being led to his execution, but it’s not far off.”
Ivins was born in 1946, the youngest of three sons who grew up in Lebanon, Ohio. His father owned a drugstore and was active in the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce; his mother stayed at home and volunteered in her sons’ PTAs, according to his eldest brother. The family went regularly to Lebanon Presbyterian Church. “He was a bookworm,” said Tom Ivins, 72, of Middletown, Ohio, who said he had been estranged from his brother for two decades. “He liked things like science.”
When Ivins applied to Fort Detrick in the late 1980s, he had “an impressive resume,” said John Ezzell, a former top scientist there who was part of a hiring committee that selected Ivins to work on the human anthrax vaccine. “We thought he worked out really well. He was a critical part of our vaccine studies.”
Ezzell said the experiments did not involve anthrax in its dried form, the type found in the letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., that was so finely ground it could immediately become airborne. Ivins worked with small teams of scientists; their findings had global significance in the field of anthrax studies and were later used by opponents of a mandatory vaccination program instituted by the Pentagon that has been highly controversial.
Ivins eventually would be awarded the Defense Department’s highest honor for civilian performance for helping to resurrect a vaccine that could protect against anthrax. At a March 2003 ceremony, Ivins described the award, which he received along with several colleagues, as unexpected. “Awards are nice. But the real satisfaction is knowing the vaccine is back on-line,” he told a military publication.
After the anthrax mailings in October 2001, the Fort Detrick labs went into a frenetic response, testing suspicious mail and packages virtually around the clock. Ivins was part of a team that analyzed the handwritten letter sent to Daschle, packed with bacillus anthracis spores that matched the primary strain used in Fort Detrick research.
In early 2002, without notifying his supervisors, Ivins began sampling areas in the Detrick lab space that he believed might be contaminated with anthrax. He took unauthorized samples from the lab containment areas and later acknowledged to Army officials that he had violated protocol.
Ivins’ odd behavior was detailed in an Army investigation, but he did not surface as a potential suspect in the mailings case.
Over the past two years, many who knew him saw the effects of pressure as the anthrax investigation veered toward him. He was finding it harder to work and planned to retire in September. But even as his troubles mounted and his mood darkened, “a lot of people cared about him,” Byrne said. “He is not Timothy McVeigh. He’s not the Unabomber.”
Still, by spring, Ivins’ life seemed to be falling apart. Police were called to his house March 19, when he was discovered unconscious and briefly admitted to a hospital. On July 10, they encountered Ivins again, this time after a counselor called from Fort Detrick to report that he was a danger to himself, ranting about weapons and making death threats. He went with police to Frederick Memorial Hospital, where he was admitted to a psychiatric ward. He was released, but his erratic behavior prompted his therapist, Jean Duley, to seek a protective order. Duley wrote that Ivins “has a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans, threats & actions toward therapists.”
She quoted his psychiatrist, Dr. David Irwin, as calling him “homicidal, sociopathic, with clear intentions.”