An Army of Guinea Pigs

From 1955 to 1975 Dr. James Ketchum and other Army researchers at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland explored the use of psychedelic drugs in US Army soldiers. The experiments were similar to MK Ultra, a secret CIA program that focused on mind-control and psychedelics.

Both studies were cancelled after media reports and congressional hearings; the project’s founder and director, Van Murray Sim, was criticized for failing to provide follow-up medical care for the 7,000 soldiers who participated as test subjects. An Army investigation found no evidence of deaths or “serious injury” as a result of the testing, although researchers later noted the possibility of long-term psychological effects.

The Edgewood research center tested toxic nerve agents such as VX and sarin gas. Dr. Ketchum specialized in drugs that threw the mind into chaos, sometimes for days — including phencyclidine, or PCP, and lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD.

Before his arrival at Edgewood, Ketchum said that LSD was occasionally tested on unwitting subjects by dropping it into a coffee cup at breakfast, mixing it into party cocktails, or added to an Army unit’s water supply. Ketchum stated he stopped such practices, and that his experiments were similar to civilian drug tests.

Although GIs volunteered through the Army’s Medical Research Volunteer Program, they were never told what they were given or how it would affect them. Critics charged that the experiments violated medical ethics by failing to obtain patients’ full consent.

Col. Douglas Lindsey, the arsenal’s chief medical officer, once stated that the GIs were “not really informed at all.” Dr. Ketchum denied that volunteers were “unwitting guinea pigs.” In 2008 he said they “performed a patriotic service.”

Soon after his arrival at Edgewood, Ketchum began focusing on 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, or BZ, a white powder initially used to treat ulcers. In small doses, GI volunteers repeatedly fell down, experienced strange visions and essentially lost their minds.

In one 1962 experiment several GIs exposed to BZ were filmed by hidden cameras and ordered to prepare for a chemical attack. One recruit tore down a panel, “broke a wooden chair and smashed a hole in the wall,” according to notes kept by Dr. Ketchum. Another told him, “I feel like my life is not worth a nickel here.” Others reported severe and lingering symptoms.

From 1959 to 1975 Ketchum dosed approximately 2,700 unwitting GIs to BZ. His experiments inspired the Vietnam war era film Jacob’s Ladder. Although there is no evidence that BZ was used on US troops in Vietnam, it was apparently used on VC.

In Project Dork BZ was blown through wind tunnels to simulate a gas attack. The aerial doses were difficult to apply and hard to control.  The propaganda film Cloud of Confusion did not persuade the Army that BZ was an effective weapon.

When he departed Edgewood Ketchum took many of the papers with him — and spent years contemplating his work. His memoir, Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten: A Personal Story of Medical Testing of Army Volunteers, paired an objective review of his research with amusing anecdotes and sketches of GI volunteers.

Although Ketchum believed in his work, maintained that few if any GIs suffered from it, and felt he had done more good than harm, in 2009 his Army archives were used in a class-action lawsuit brought by Edgewood GIs. In 2017, the U.S. District Court of Northern California ordered the Army to provide medical care to the former volunteers.

Ironically, a small part of Ketchum’s early work focused on EA 2233, the synthetic analog of THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana now widely seen to have medicinal benefits.

James S. Ketchum died May 27 at his home in Peoria, Ariz. He was 87.


from The Intercept: Lee Harvey Oswald, the CIA, and LSD


The Washington Post: Obit

wikipedia: Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments

Counterpunch: A US Army Pipe Dream

wikipedia: Jacob’s Ladder

Recommended reading: Bob Helm’s Guinea Pig Zero

Top photo: 1966 US Army yearbook photograph of Bravo Company, Edgewood Arsenal Medical Research Volunteers.