With the proliferation of chemical weapons during World War I, the United States established its own chemical weapons production and testing facility. Located at Edgewood Arsenal near Baltimore, MD, the facility conducted military experiments on soldiers by testing hundreds of chemicals, psychedelic substances, and nerve agents, all in the name of national defense. The volunteer participants became unsuspecting guinea pigs exposed to nefarious contaminants and dangerous conditions that impacted their physical and mental health.
The final chapter of Edgewood Arsenal's history is ongoing, as are the stories of the individuals who suffered at the testing facility.
The government used the facility at Edgewood Arsenal, built during WWI, to test, assess, and understand new methods that could potentially wreak havoc on the battlefield. The US military also used Edgewood to distribute new methods of biological warfare.
Edgewood Arsenal initially covered 8,000 acres in Maryland and, by 1918, had four plants churning out chlorine, chloropicrin, phosgene, and mustard gas.
According to the US Army Research Development and Engineering Command Chemical and Biological Center, Edgewood had "two shell filling plants, housing for 8,500 workers and soldiers, a chemical laboratory, and a hospital, plus all the road and rail infrastructure needed for production and transport."
By the early 1950s, Edgewood Arsenal, which became part of the larger complex at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, produced numerous biological agents, developed protective equipment and prophylactic treatments, and shaped US combat policy and practice. In the aftermath of WWII tensions between the US and the USSR prompted scientists, military officials, and policy advisors to increase the number of tests conducted on soldiers.
Between 1955 and 1975, the number of volunteer test subjects totaled between 6,000 and 7,000 soldiers. The array of tests involved using psychedelic illicit substances, chemical agents, and other mind-altering substances, all designed to produce "fits or seizures, dizziness, fear, panic, hysteria, hallucinations, migraine, delirium, extreme depression, notions of hopelessness, lack of initiative to do even simple things, and mania,” according to scientific director L. Wilson Greene.
The human experimentation program had become known as Operation Delirium.
The earliest nerve agents developed at Edgewood included chlorine, chloropicrin, phosgene, and mustard gas, but the military quickly expanded its repertoire. One of the most noteworthy substances was sarin gas. First developed in Germany in 1938, the gas caused convulsions and other injuries upon even the slightest exposure. Too much of it was lethal.
With both the US and the USSR producing the gas, exposure became a constant concern. The government tested the limits of human tolerance to it in attempts to counteract its effects.
Scientists tried pairing it with other substances and designed a nerve agent called VX, which proved deadlier than sarin gas, especially when applied to the skin. Scientists learned this through repeated experimentation. As one subject put it, "It was intense. My body was clenched. All of my nerves were tight, physically and mentally."
As Edgewood experiments progressed during the mid-20th century, scientists recreated extreme situations from WWII. They built a gas chamber out of a salvaged naval vessel and told soldiers they were testing summer clothing. Participants walked into the chamber - some dressed, some nude - and scientists exposed them to gas. Researchers didn't reveal what type of gas it was, but upon entry and exit, they assessed subjects' bodies for burns and other injuries.
Called "man-break" tests, researchers designed these activities to see how long it would take to break a man in body and spirit.