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Last Updated

15 Jan 2003

Source: Washington Post, January 15, 2003

Germ Warfare Researcher Riley D. Housewright Dies

By Claudia Levy, Washington Post Staff Writer

Riley D. Housewright, 89, scientific director of the Army laboratories at Fort Detrick during its early years as a biological weapons research center, died Jan. 11 at the Edenton assisted-living facility in Frederick. He had Alzheimer's disease and a heart ailment.

As a young microbiologist during World War II, Dr. Housewright was assigned to the Frederick facility by the Navy. At that time, a secret research program was being mobilized to counter potential germ attacks by Japan and Germany. The Fort Detrick scientists worked to develop anthrax spores that could be used in weapons and made deadly botulinum toxin that was highly concentrated. While biological weapons were not employed by the United States during the war, the military's interest in relatively low-cost germ warfare continued during the Cold War era.

Dr. Housewright was named chief of the microbial physiology and chemotherapy branch at Detrick in 1946 and became scientific director 10 years later. During that period, medical advances began to diminish the potential for bacterial weapons, and research directions shifted at the Army facility.

In their 2001 book, "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad describe Detrick's growing interest in lethal viruses, which are much harder to attack. Viruses developed as weapons at Detrick included encephalitis and yellow fever.

In interviews for the book and a subsequent "Frontline" television documentary, Dr. Housewright described the biological warfare operation at Fort Detrick and the high priority given it by the Kennedy administration as the Cuban missile crisis loomed.

"The planning was directed by Pentagon officials who encouraged the germ scientists to refine how, exactly, such an attack would work," Miller and the others write. " 'I'd get maps half the size of my desk' that indicated the position of Russian troops and weapons in Cuba," Dr. Housewright is quoted as saying.

Under his direction, scientists "prepared agents that could incapacitate or kill large numbers of Cubans," the authors say. The lethal alternative of spraying enemy troops with botulinum toxin was also considered, they note. But again, the weapons were not utilized.

By the end of the 1960s, the mission of Fort Detrick had become more widely known, and it was the target of Vietnam War protesters.

In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon announced that he was ending research in biological weaponry but continuing research on defending against such attacks. By then, about 50 viruses and rickettsiae had been identified at Detrick as good candidates for germ warfare, the "Germ" authors write.

Dr. Housewright remained as scientific director at the lab until 1970 and then became vice president of Microbiological Associates in Bethesda. He later was principal staff officer at the National Academy of Sciences, where he published four volumes on safe drinking water.

He was executive director of the American Society for Microbiology in the early 1980s before retiring. He had been founding president of the society in the mid-1960s.

Dr. Housewright was a native of Wylie, Tex., and a graduate of North Texas State University. He received a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Texas and a doctorate in bacteriology from the University of Chicago.

He retired as a captain in the Naval Reserve in 1966.

His honors included civilian service awards from the Army, the first distinguished alumni award of North Texas State and an award from the International Congress of Chemotherapy, which he headed in the mid-1960s.

He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a consultant to companies and institutions and an author of books and articles for research journals. He was a member of the Cosmos Club and the board of the American Type Culture Collection in Bethesda.

Dr. Housewright was also a trustee of Hood College and a director of Frederick Memorial Hospital and the Cancer Research Center at Fort Detrick. He was president of the Frederick Rotary Club.

His first wife, Marjory Bryant Housewright, died in 1962.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Artemis Jegart Housewright of Frederick; a son from his first marriage, Kim Bryant Housewright of Fullerton, Calif.; two stepdaughters; his twin brother; and two grandchildren.