Scientists' deaths are under the microscope
Printer Friendly version
It's a tale only the best conspiracy theorist could
Eleven microbiologists mysteriously dead over the
span of just five months. Some of them world leaders in
developing weapons-grade biological plagues. Others the
best in figuring out how to stop millions from dying
because of biological weapons. Still others, experts in
the theory of bioterrorism.
Throw in a few Russian defectors, a few nervy U.S.
biotech companies, a deranged assassin or two, a bit of
Elvis, a couple of Satanists, a subtle hint of
espionage, a big whack of imagination, and the plot is
complete, if a bit reminiscent of James Bond.
The first three died in the space of just over a week
in November. Benito Que, 52, was an expert in infectious
diseases and cellular biology at the Miami Medical
School. Police originally suspected that he had been
beaten on Nov. 12 in a carjacking in the medical
school's parking lot. Strangely enough, though, his body
showed no signs of a beating. Doctors then began to
suspect a stroke.
Just four days after Dr. Que fell unconscious came
the mysterious disappearance of Don Wiley, 57, one of
the foremost microbiologists in the United States. Dr.
Wiley, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Harvard
University, was an expert on how the immune system
responds to viral attacks such as the classic doomsday
plagues of HIV, ebola and influenza.
He had just bought tickets to take his son to
Graceland the following day. Police found his rental car
on a bridge outside Memphis, Tenn. His body was later
found in the Mississippi River. Forensic experts said he
may have had a dizzy spell and have fallen off the
Just five days after that, the world-class
microbiologist and high-profile Russian defector
Valdimir Pasechnik, 64, fell dead. The pathologist who
did the autopsy, and who also happened to be associated
with Britain's spy agency, concluded he died of a
Dr. Pasechnik, who defected to the United Kingdom in
1989, played a huge role in Russian biowarfare and
helped to figure out how to modify cruise missiles to
deliver the agents of mass biological destruction.
The next two deaths came four days apart in December.
Robert Schwartz, 57, was stabbed and slashed with what
police believe was a sword in his farmhouse in Leesberg,
Va. His daughter, who identifies herself as a pagan high
priestess, and several of her fellow pagans have been
Dr. Schwartz was an expert in DNA sequencing and
pathogenic micro-organisms, who worked at the Center for
Innovative Technology in Herndon, Va.
Four days later, Nguyen Van Set, 44, died at work in
Geelong, Australia, in a laboratory accident. He entered
an airlocked storage lab and died from exposure to
nitrogen. Other scientists at the animal diseases
facility of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Research Organization had just come to fame for
discovering a virulent strain of mousepox, which could
be modified to affect smallpox.
Then in February, the Russian microbiologist Victor
Korshunov, 56, an expert in intestinal bacteria of
children around the world, was bashed over the head near
his home in Moscow. Five days later the British
microbiologist Ian Langford, 40, was found dead in his
home near Norwich, England, naked from the waist down
and wedged under a chair. He was an expert in
environmental risks and disease.
Two weeks later, two prominent microbiologists died
in San Francisco. Tanya Holzmayer, 46, a Russian who
moved to the U.S. in 1989, focused on the part of the
human molecular structure that could be affected best by
She was killed by fellow microbiologist Guyang
(Matthew) Huang, 38, who shot her seven times when she
opened the door to a pizza delivery. Then he shot
The final two deaths came one day after the other in
March. David Wynn-Williams, 55, a respected
astrobiologist with the British Antarctic Survey, who
studied the habits of microbes that might survive in
outer space, died in a freak road accident near his home
in Cambridge, England. He was hit by a car while he was
The following day, Steven Mostow, 63, known as Dr.
Flu for his expertise in treating influenza, and a noted
expert in bioterrorism, died when the airplane he was
piloting crashed near Denver.
So what does any of it mean?
"Statistically, what are the chances?" wondered a
prominent North American microbiologist reached last
night at an international meeting of infectious-disease
specialists in Chicago.
Janet Shoemaker, director of public and scientific
affairs of the American Society for Microbiology in
Washington, D.C., pointed out yesterday that there are
about 20,000 academic researchers in microbiology in the
U.S. Still, not all of these are of the elevated calibre
of those recently deceased.
She had a chilling, final thought. When
microbiologists die in a lab, there's a way of taking
note of the deaths and adding them up. When they die in
freakish accidents outside the lab, nobody keeps track.
The sudden and suspicious deaths of 11 of the world's
Who they were:
1. Nov. 12, 2001:
Benito Que was said to have been beaten in a Miami
parking lot and died later.
2. Nov. 16, 2001:
Don C. Wiley went missing. Was found Dec. 20.
Investigators said he got dizzy on a Memphis bridge and
fell to his death in a river.
3. Nov. 21, 2001:
Vladimir Pasechnik, former high-level Russian
microbiologist who defected in 1989 to the U.K.
apparently died from a stroke.
4. Dec. 10, 2001:
Robert M. Schwartz was stabbed to death in Leesberg,
Va. Three Satanists have been arrested.
5. Dec. 14, 2001:
Nguyen Van Set died in an airlock filled with
nitrogen in his lab in Geelong, Australia.
6. Feb. 9, 2002:
Victor Korshunov had his head bashed in near his home
7. Feb. 14, 2002:
Ian Langford was found partially naked and wedged
under a chair in Norwich, England.
8. 9. Feb. 28, 2002:
San Francisco resident Tanya Holzmayer was killed by
a microbiologist colleague, Guyang Huang, who shot her
as she took delivery of a pizza and then apparently shot
10. March 24, 2002:
David Wynn-Williams died in a road accident near his
home in Cambridge, England.
11. March 25, 2002:
Steven Mostow of the Colorado Health Sciences Centre,
killed in a plane he was flying near Denver.
© The Globe and
Mail. Republished with permission. All Rights
Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or
republished or redistributed without the prior written
consent of the copyright holder.