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Nessie Files


The strange case of Atabrine
Not enough biowar medicine? Ever wonder why?

By nessie

The anthrax-by-mail attacks are not biowar. They are psychological warfare using a biowar weapon as a prop. A real biowar attack, even with anthrax, would be a catastrophe. There is simply not enough medication to go around. A real biowar attack with certain other diseases would be even worse. For some diseases there is no medication at all.

This is not the first time that a shortfall of medication has been a factor in war. "Those who fail to learn from history ..." et cetera.

The intentionally arranged absence of an agent can be an extremely effective biological-warfare weapon. Therein hangs a tale still relevant today. Consider, if you will, the curious case of Atabrine, a synthetic quinine substitute.

The history of the drug goes back to the experiments of a young English chemist named Perkin almost a century and a half ago, when the attempt to make synthetic quinine from coal tar accidentally resulted in the discovery of the coal tar dyes that gave I.G. Farben its name. Those dyes, along with Bayer aspirin and heroin, made Farben its fortune. But it was not until 1932 that Farben chemists finally came up with a quinine synthesis from coal tar called quinacrine hydrochloride. It was sold under the name Atabrine.

Prior to WWII, I. G. Farben, through a series of partnerships and patent licenses, controlled about 40 percent of the North (and 100 percent of the South) American pharmaceutical business. Among the many companies Farben had a hand in were two called Sterling and Winthrop. Their absolutely fascinating story can be found in Treason's Peace, by Howard Watson Ambruster. It's a must-read for any objective historian of pharmacology. Farben hid its tentacles well, through a series of dummy holding companies, interlocking directorships, and, patent licenses. As we have seen, the usefulness of such Tarnung (http://www.sfbg.com/nessie/company.html) has neither dwindled nor has it been eschewed. The lessons of WWII have not been forgotten. If anything, they have been applied. Today's techniques are far more refined. The perps have not gone away, and neither has their motivation.

A Farben-Sterling partnership owned Winthrop. In the early '30s Atabrine was introduced in the United States as a Winthrop product. But it was made by Farben – all Winthrop did was to put it in ampules or to compress it into tablets and distribute the new remedy under its own label as made in America.

As illustrative of its importance to the national defense, the annual report of the Surgeon General of the United States Army in 1941 indicated that hospitalization of enlisted men for malaria in Panama and the Philippines was well over 100 for each 1000 stationed there. Under such conditions the grave danger to the health and efficiency of thousands of men in the Army and Navy, many of whom were never previously exposed to malaria, is obvious.

It is necessary ... in appraising (Atabrine)'s place in the Farben pattern, to record the wide discrepancy in medical opinion regarding the merits of Atabrine as a malaria remedy ... (According to numerous qualified opinions) Atabrine, as it was then made, presented no advantages over quinine in the treatment of malaria, and had certain toxic properties which had to be eliminated through change in its formula before its final acceptance as anything but an emergency substitute for the older remedy.

Treason's Peace: German Dyes and American Dupes, by Howard Watson Ambruster, The Beechhurst Press, New York, 1947, pp. 218-19

Its producers saw this as no reason not to make a profit anyhow. Sound familiar?

Back in 1935, when Atabrine was first being tried out in the United States on a large scale, medical authorities reported that mental disturbances followed its use. The public relations experts at Sterling never conceded this fault possible nor mentioned it. They contented themselves with statements issued either directly or through sources not readily identified as friendly which enlarged upon the tremendous expansion made in Winthrop's production of Atabrine for national defense purposes, and the reduction in selling price to a figure less than one-tenth of that which was charged before the war (and before the subversive tie-up of Winthrop with Farben was exposed).

– Ibid, p. 219

The Farben-Sterling Winthrop also used its patents on Atabrine to restrict the production of that remedy (such as it was) for malaria after Japan cut off our supply of quinine from the Dutch East Indies. In this they were aided by friends in high places.

Senator Bone, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Patents announced to the press on April 12, 1942 that the hearings which were to begin next day into restrictions on the use of Farben owned patents would include the subject of synthetic quinine. But Senator Bone was in error. He was never permitted to open up his hearings of any feature of the Farben tie-ups with Sterling or Winthrop. His hands were tied although his committee subpoena reached into the Anti-Trust Division of the Justice department and seized over twenty-five thousand documents from the Sterling files and elsewhere, which revealed the details relative to Atabrine, as well as other facts which had been pigeonholed in September 1941 when Mr. Thomas Corcoran succeeded in choking off the Justice proceedings against Sterling.

– Ibid, p. 221

The tale of superlobbyist Thomas "Tommy the Cork" Corcoran is very nearly worth a book of its own.

But ... I digress.

In August, over vigorous protest of Senator Bone, five other members of the Patents Committee voted not to permit its Chairman, and its two-fisted incorruptible counsel, Creekmore Fath, to produce a single witness, or document, relating to Sterling and Winthrop at a public hearing.

... The five members of the committee who yielded to the persuasions of those who were determined not to have the Sterling-Winthrop situation disclosed were Claude Pepper of Florida; D. Worth Clark of Idaho; Scott W. Lucas, of Illinois; Wallace H. White Jr., of Maine; and John A. Danaher of Connecticut.

– Ibid

Ah, names. Now we're getting somewhere. Kick butt and take names, goes the grand old adage. Two can play that game. Starting with the old names makes it easier to come up with the new. A few of you old-timers out there may remember Claude Pepper for his role in the 1960s civil rights struggle.

Of these five, Senator Pepper, prior to the vote which tied the hands of Senator Bone, received an appeal from the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to continue the hearings of the Patents Committee on the "patent and cartel connection between American concerns and Axis interests until all

Senator Pepper replied:

Appreciate your message and am sure that investigation will be all-inclusive before it is finished. Regards.

The Senator, according to Thomas L. Stokes in the World-Telegram of August 6, 1942, was a friend of Mr. Thomas Corcoran and the latter ... is proudly wearing another feather in his cap as super lobbyist. He who once started Congressional investigations has now stopped one – one that was due to produce sensational revelations about a corporations with former German connections, which he has been protecting from the government."

The Stokes article went on to describe two turbulent sessions in which Thurmond Arnold, who had been so hot after other German cartel affiliates, took a very different position as regards Sterling Products and favored dropping the investigation. Said Mr. Stokes:

"So did Undersecretary of War Production who sat with the Committee, along with Leo Crowley, Alien Property Custodian.... Suppression of the Sterling investigation climaxes one of the most amazing examples of "inside baseball" ever seen here. Suspicions were aroused that high administration officials were trying to duck the inquiry when Mr. Crowley was asked to testify about Sterling with particular reference to the synthetic quinine monopoly which one of its subsidiaries, the Winthrop Co. – still owned 50 percent by I. G. Farben-industrie – possess by virtue of its control of German patents – Mr. Crowley kept postponing his appearance. Despite earlier assurances that he was going to take over the substitute quinine patents and release them generally ... he never did.... Questions in a public hearing might have proved embarrassing. So he never did appear.

Another short-lived effort to force out the facts about Atabrine was begun by Republican Congressman Bertrand W. Gearhart of California who made a brave start to accomplish this purpose in the House of Representatives on August 13, 1942.

– Ibid, pp. 221-222

This goes on. It gets worse. Treason's Peace, by Howard Watson Armbruster. Read the book. It's very illuminating. It kept me up all night and confirmed many of my suspicions. I recommend it highly.

But how does this sordid episode constitute biowar, you may ask? Surely, it was at most, economic warfare. Not so.

Put yourself for a moment in the bloody, muddy boots of an American dogface in the Philippine hell of spring 1942. Imagine that you are one of that one out of 10 stricken with malaria.

Malaria! The horror, the horror.

Your head swims in a murky soup and pounds like sun drenched tarmac splitting under a jackhammer. You're drenched in sweat but you shiver like a merchant marine torpedoed in the North Sea. Knee deep in Bataan's festering muck, your trembling legs are covered with leaches. Clouds of mosquitoes swarm in your eyes. For weeks, months, it seems like years, you have been retreating, step by bloody step, back up the peninsula, back to Corrigidor.

Corrigidor. Will you live to make it? Your commander, General Douglas "Dugout Doug" MacArthur is already safely ensconced there, deep underground. But will you, yourself, make it? You're no brass hat. You're just some kid from Kansas, or is it Brooklyn, trying to do his duty. You don't get a dugout to hide in and a PT boat to rescue you. You get a muddy hole to hide in and the incessant rattle of Yamashita's chattering Nambus, their hot lead teeth tearing life from limb all around you. Corpses stink in the sweltering heat. They were your buddies. Now they're dead; their bodies black and swollen. Will you be next? Or will you live to march back up Bataan in the blistering sun with a guard's whip to drive you and a bayonet in your gut if you stumble and fall?

A sniper's 97 cracks somewhere out in the bush in front of you. Lead whizzes past your buddy's ear. Where's the sniper? A stroke of luck, you see him. Through fever's swirling blur you somehow spot the sniper in his perch. You try to draw a bead. Your hands are shaking so. Malaria, goddamnit. You grit your teeth. You bite your tongue. You taste the blood. You can't remember when last you brushed your teeth. The sniper smiles, his steady, healthy hands caress the warm Murata. The M1 dances in your hand. Son of a bitch, hold still! You can't. It won't. Your shot goes wild. His doesn't. Your buddy's body jerks, its throat shot out. As he sinks into the ooze, his last desperate gasp sucks mud into the wound. It gurgles. He twitches one last time. Your eyes meet his. Your last meal, such as it was, explodes from your mouth, and splatters on his face. It's the last thing he ever sees. Tears mingle with the fetid malarial sweat that runs in rivers down your cheek.

"Medic," you cry in that hoarse whisper you kid yourself he'll hear, "Medic! Get me some goddamn Atabrine, goddamnit!"

He can't. There isn't any left. Winthrop didn't make enough to go around.

Biowar? You never heard of it.


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