By Henry Ehrlich
Once you start studying a relatively obscure subject like allergies, you see it pop up in the darndest places. A new one is a Netflix production called “Wormwood,” which tells the story of one Frank Olson, a microbiologist employed by the United States Army to work on biological weapons during the Korean War. In November 1953, he was slipped a dose of LSD by contacts in the CIA, which was investigating the drug’s potential value as a truth serum for a program about mind control–code name MKULTRA. Olson committed suicide, or so the official version said. Even before the acid trip, according to his family, Olson had been suffering pangs of guilt over his work, which would on a “good day” kill all the monkeys used in an experiment. His darkest doubts were over whether these poisons had been used in combat in Korea as claimed by the Chinese. His other major agony was suspicion about use by the military of what are now euphemistically called enhanced interrogation techniques.
These events are imagined and dramatized by master documentarian ErroI Morris, interspersed with newsreel and TV footage, and interviews with son Eric Olson and others. The narrative by Eric, who was nine when his father died, holds the sprawling story together, in part by relying on apt references to Hamlet, who also had a problem with the mysterious death of a father. He was a Harvard graduate student when his life was virtually taken over by his decision to take arms against his own sea of troubles and search for the truth. As drama: gripping. As history: deeply disturbing, with events and characters that ring doorbells from the beginnings of the cold war to the present day.
All that and allergy, too, in the form of Dr. Harold A. Abramson.
In between the dose and plunging from a hotel window in New York nine days later, Olson was sent to see a doctor about terrible anxiety and self-doubt purportedly brought on by the LSD. The doctor turned out not to be a psychiatrist, as he told his wife before he left Virginia, but Abramson, an allergist who dabbled in psychiatry. He had been an early promoter of the use of acid as a therapeutic tool, which he contended was no more dangerous than any other drug if administered by trained physicians as opposed to recreational use. He died in 1980.
Olson had worked with Abramson at Fort Dietrick, where much military and intelligence research took place. As an allergist, Abramson was interested in the distribution of pollen and other particulates in the air. Airborne allergens and airborne toxins are cousins. Dr. Chiaramonte wrote in our book that the instruments he used to collect ragweed pollen for research were developed by the military for capturing fallout from nuclear tests. They could as easily be used to study the movement of, say, anthrax spores, and probably were.
Abramson graduated from Columbia College in 1919, and received an MD from Columbia in 1923. He specialized in allergy and pediatrics. In 1941 he joined the staff at Mount Sinai, where he was the first ever to use aerosolized penicillin, and concentrated on asthma and pulmonary disease. Hence the basis of his usefulness to the CIA and Army. His publications in the early 1940s, as recorded in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI), range from a review of a portable respirator to protect against pollen inhalation through use of gelatin in preparing epinephrine for injection to “Preseasonal treatment of hay fever by electrophoresis of ragweed pollen extracts into the skin.” Later in his career he co-founded of the Journal of Asthma Research with another prominent allergist Dr. Murray Peshkin, who also died in 1980.
How did Abramson go from being a professional allergist to an amateur psychiatrist? More important, how did he go from giving allergy shots to complicity in the death of an American scientist? Was he bored? Did he have a mid-life crisis? What were the small steps and incremental ethical choices he made in between?
One clue concerns a book Abramson edited, published in 1951, called Somatic and Psychiatric Treatment of Asthma. It was greeted without enthusiasm in a JACI review, which criticized misguided and contradictory classifications and recommendations on the somatic side of the equation. As for the psychiatric side, the reviewer wrote, “Despite the title, psychiatric treatment is not given a predominant position. The existence of purely psychogenic asthma is questioned, and psychic factors are considered contributory causes of asthma which is associated with an antibody mechanism. The section on psychotherapy comprises less than one-tenth of the text.” Pretty dismal. A pity because despite the nasty treatment at the hands of the JACI reviewer, it looks like he was trying as an allergist to grapple with a heterogeneous disease that we still haven’t gotten right, and whose nature does show a good deal of overlap of the body and the mind. Maybe the bad review had caused him to sour on mundane research and publication.
Somewhere along the line his interest in psychiatry led to an infatuation with lysergic acid diethylamide and its potential for altering the mind. In 1953 Abramson proposed an $85,000 study to the CIA for exploring the use of this wonder drug. There was a great deal of interest in the idea of “brainwashing” as practiced by our Chinese foes in Korea, which inspired the great Cold War thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” which is excerpted briefly in “Wormwood.” The US needed its own tools: thus MKULTRA. After that most of his medical achievements were concerned with LSD instead of asthma and included a book called The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism.
Abramson has emerged in this Netflix depiction as a version of Albert Finney’s character Albert Hirsch in The Bourne Ultimatum, the third Jason Bourne movie, someone who, along with others in this real-life tale of intrigue, started out with patriotic intentions and went off the rails. Who knows? Abramson may have been a model for Hirsch. Like Bourne, Olson knew things he would have been better off not learning in the first place and it made him dangerous. Abramson, according to “Wormwood,” was complicit in Olson’s probable murder.
I asked two New York allergists old enough to have intersected with Abramson if they had ever heard of him. Negative. By complete chance I was at a breakfast at a leading medical institution this morning to greet some visitors from another country who are collaborating on research. One of the local collaborators is an eminent pulmonologist at Columbia so I mentioned the name Harold Abramson and asked if he was someone they were proud of. She said no. Who was he and what did he do? So I explained. I mentioned his book. She had never heard of it. Finally she said, “At Columbia they only talk about Nobel Prize winners and people like that.”
Can’t say as I blame them. I would love to know the whole story.