Sunday, February 12, 2006


We've watched with great interest and trepidation the slow advance of avian flu in Asia and now Europe. Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the migratory patterns of birds, which included a map showing the major bird migration pathways on Earth (see URL at end). One point of the article was that the major migration patterns are north-south, and therefore transmittal of avian flu to North America from Asia and Europe is not highly likely. This article, however, brought a forgotten memory flooding into my thoughts.

In the early 1970's, as a graduate student of ecology at the University of California, Irvine, I helped organize a symposium series for the department. The United States had recently bombed Cambodia as part of the war in Viet Nam, and many of us were very active in the anti-war movement. I was aware that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the oldest and most prestigious professional science organizations in the United States, had been lobbying the government to look at the ecological and health impacts of herbicide spraying (Agent Orange and others) in Viet Nam. A very outspoken member of the AAAS on this issue was Professor E. W. "Bert" Pfeiffer, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Montana. I arranged for Dr. Pfeiffer to present at our symposium series.

Bert looked like a typical academic when I picked him up at the airport, with his tweed sport coat and tie. His presentation to the assembled students and faculty began by recounting how the AAAS had urged the government to look at herbicide effects, and how he and another AAAS members had finally traveled to Viet Nam to gather information. As his talk continued, he grew more agitated and empassioned, describing the magnitude of aerial spraying and the resulting damage to crops and forests (the U.S. had a massive defoliation campaign attempting to deny food to the enemy, as well as remove forest cover so enemy movements could be seen from the air). Bert also talked about the use of nerve gas and other chemical agents by the U.S., and finished his talk by calling for the indictment of President Nixon, Secretary of War MacNamara and others as war criminals.

Following the presentation, we had a reception for Dr. Pfeiffer, and a chance for questions and discussions. At one point, the discussion settled on the relationship between academia and the government, particularly whether or not academics should question the purpose of federal research grants from the Department of Defense. Dr. Pfeiffer told the following story:

Bert and other progressive academics obtained unclassified information about research grants awarded by the Department of Defense. They primarily had a long list of research project names, principal investigators and their institutions, and sometimes brief descriptions of the research. Bert said that the list was long and the research topics extremely varied. Many projects seemed not to have much relevence to national defense, but some chilling scenarios could be put together from the lists.

Although the relationships between research projects at different institutions could only be imagined, the very existance of the funded research raised interesting questions and implications. For example, the DoD grant lists had research projects concerning: influenza viruses, insect parasites of birds, insect vectors of viruses, and songbird migration patterns. Each project was at a different academic or government institution and had no apparent relationship to the others. But why, Bert asked, would the Department of Defense be funding these disparite projects? One could imagine, he explained, that certain insect parasites of birds could be infected with a virulent strain of influenza virus, and the parasites introduced into a population of song birds that migrates to a region of central China - the result, we could start a flu epidemic in China (or elsewhere) and nobody would know where it came from!

Now, I'm generally not a conspiracy theorist, but I have learned not to trust governments just because they tell us we should. The scenario described above sounds far-fetched, but on the other hand.....

I googled E.W. Pfeiffer today, and learned that he died in 2004 at the age of 88. The 2004 obituary on the U. of Montana web site read, in part:

Pfeiffer was a longtime faculty member who was known internationally for his studies on the environmental consequences of weapons of war, including the radioactive fallout from nuclear testing and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

His obituary in the Washington Post last April read, in part: "Dr. Pfeiffer tirelessly warned about dangers associated with radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, long before most scientists considered it an issue. He also studied miliary use of chemical defoliants on the environment and warned the 'Winter Soldier Investigation' of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971 about their dangers."

NY Times article:

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