Frank Rudolph Olson (July 17, 1910 – November 28, 1953) was an American bacteriologist, biological warfare scientist, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who worked at Camp Detrick (now Fort Detrick) in Maryland. At a meeting in rural Maryland, he was covertly dosed with LSD by his CIA supervisor and, nine days later, plunged to his death from the window of a 10th-story New York City hotel room. The U.S. government first described his death as a suicide, and then as misadventure, while others allege murder. The Rockefeller Commission report on the CIA in 1975 acknowledged their having conducted drug studies.
Olson was born in Hurley, Iron County, Wisconsin, and earned both B.S. and Ph.D. degrees (Bacteriology, 1938) at the University of Wisconsin. He married and had three children: Eric, Nils, and Lisa. Olson worked for a time at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and then served as a captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps.
As a civilian, he was recruited to Camp Detrick, and to the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, by the distinguished UW scientist Ira Baldwin, the technical director there. (Baldwin had been his departmental advisor at UW.) At Camp Detrick, Baldwin worked with industrial partners such as George W. Merck and the U.S. military to establish the top secret U.S. bioweapons program beginning in 1943, during World War II, a time when interest in applying modern technology to warfare was high. Olson’s duties included experiments with aerosolized anthrax. There were allegations that the US used biological warfare during the Korean War but the government denied this. After 10 years, Olson was a senior bacteriologist at the program.
At some point while assigned as a civilian U.S. Army contractor, Olson began working as a CIA employee with the CIA’s Technical Services Staff (TSS), run by Sidney Gottlieb and his deputy Robert Lashbrook. Some of his CIA colleagues were involved in the MKNAOMI–MKULTRA program, previously known as Project Artichokeand, earlier, Project Bluebird. It was a program to explore the possible espionage and military uses of psychotropic drugs.
Deep Creek Lake was three hours by car from Camp Detrick. On Wednesday morning, November 18, 1953, about a week before Thanksgiving, a group from the SO Division, including Vincent Ruwet, chief of the division, John Schwab, Frank Olson, Ben Wilson, Gerald Yonetz, and John Malinowski, drove out to the retreat… The Detrick group was met at the lodge by Sid Gottlieb, his deputy Robert Lashbrook, and a couple of others from the CIA….On the second day of the retreat, after dinner, Gottlieb spiked a bottle of Cointreau with a small quantity of a substance that he and his TSS colleagues privately referred to as “serunin” but which was in fact lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.:153
Olson asked to quit the biowarfare program the week after the retreat:
Ruwet was surprised to see Olson at 7:30 in the morning, but asked him in. Olson told Ruwet that he was dissatisfied with his own performance at the retreat, that he was experiencing considerable self-doubts, and that in fact he had decided he would like to be out of the germ warfare business. He wanted to leave Camp Detrick and devote his life to something else.:157.
Olson subsequently suffered severe paranoia and a nervous breakdown. The CIA sent him to New York City to see one of their physicians, who recommended that Olson be placed into a mental institution for recovery. This was Harold Abramson, an allergist-pediatrician, who was helping the CIA with the psychotropic research into the effects of the drug.:158
The ensuing police report said that on his last night in Manhattan, Olson purposely threw himself out of the window of his tenth-floor hotel room at the Hotel Statler, which he had been sharing with Lashbrook, and died shortly after impact.
Murder and wrongful death allegations
Although Olson’s family told friends that Olson had suffered “a fatal nervous breakdown” which resulted in the fall, the family had no knowledge of the specific details surrounding the tragedy until the Rockefeller Commission uncovered some of the CIA’s MKULTRA activities in 1975. That year, the government admitted that Olson had been dosed with LSD, without his knowledge, nine days before his death. After the family announced they planned to sue the Agency over Olson’s “wrongful death,” the government offered them an out-of-court settlement of $1,250,000, later reduced to $750,000, which they accepted. The family received apologies from President Gerald Ford and then-CIA director William Colby.
In 1994, Eric Olson had his father’s body exhumed to be buried with his mother. The family decided to have a second autopsy performed. The 1953 medical report done immediately after Dr. Olson’s death indicated that there were cuts and abrasions on the body. Theories sparked about Olson having been assassinated by the CIA. When the second autopsy was performed by James Starrs, Professor of Law and Forensic Science at the George Washington University National Law Center, his team searched the body for any cuts and abrasions and found none. Starrs found a large hematoma on the left side of Olson’s head and a large injury on his chest. Most of the team concluded that the blunt-force trauma to the head and the injury to the chest had not occurred during the fall, but most likely in the room before the fall (one team member dissented). Starrs called the evidence “rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide.”
In 1996, Eric approached the U.S. District Attorney in Manhattan, Robert Morgenthau, to see if his office would open a new investigation. Stephen Saracco and Daniel Bibb of the office’s “cold case” unit collected preliminary information, including a deposition of Lashbrook, but concluded that there was no compelling case to send to a grand jury. In 2001, Canadian historian and former politician Michael Ignatieff wrote an account of Eric’s decades-long campaign to clear his father’s name for The New York Times Magazine.
Eric Olson said the forensic evidence of death is suggestive of a method used by the CIA found in the first manual of assassination that says “The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.”
On November 28, 2012, sons Eric and Nils Olson filed suit in the US District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking unspecified compensatory damages as well as access to documents related to their father’s death and other matters that they claimed the CIA had withheld from them. The case was dismissed in July 2013, due in part to the 1976 settlement between the family and government. In the decision dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg wrote, “While the court must limit its analysis to the four corners of the complaint, the skeptical reader may wish to know that the public record supports many of the allegations [in the family’s suit], farfetched as they may sound.”
Netflix released a documentary miniseries, entitled Wormwood (2017), based on the mystery of Olson’s death; it was directed by Errol Morris. In the miniseries, journalist Seymour Hersh says the government had a security process to identify and execute domestic dissidents (perceived to pose a risk). He said that Frank Olson was a victim of this and an ongoing cover-up after his death. If this is correct, then the U.S. government in this case considered an accidental death as a result of illegal human experimentation to be an appropriate, effective, and less-damning cover story than the truth. However, Hersh explained that he cannot elaborate or publish on the facts because it would compromise his source.
- Ignatieff, Michael (April 1, 2001). “What did the C.I.A. do to Eric Olson’s father?”. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved January 17, 2013.
- “Dr. Frank R. Olson Dies in New York City”. Iron County Miner. December 4, 1953. p. 1. Retrieved August 2, 2018 – via Newspapers.com.
- “Family Statement on the Murder of Frank Olson”. Frank Olson Project. Archived from the original on February 11, 2003. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
- Hersh, Seymour (July 10, 1975). “Family Plans to Sue C.I.A. Over Suicide in Drug Test”. The New York Times. Retrieved March 16, 2008.
The widow and children of a researcher who committed suicide in 1953 after his participant in a Central intelligence Agency drug experiment said today that they planned to sue the agency over what they claimed was his “wrongful death.”
- Regis, Ed (1999). The Biology of Doom: America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project. New York: Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 978-0-80505-764-5.
- Coen, Bob; Nadler, Eric (2009). Dead Silence: Fear and Terror on the Anthrax Trail. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. p. 97. ISBN 978-1-58243-509-1.
- Brown, Matthew Hay (December 8, 2012). “Six decades later, sons seek answers on death of Detrick scientist”. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved September 24, 2016.
- “CIA Documents Concerning The Death of Dr. Frank Olson” (PDF). Frank Olson Project. January 11, 1975. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
- Fischer, Mary A. (January 2000). “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. GQ. Archived from the original on February 5, 2002. Retrieved May 10, 2018 – via Frank Olson Project.
- Ignatieff, Michael (February 22, 2018). “Who Killed Frank Olson?”. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
- Scherstuhl, Alan (December 12, 2017). “Errol Morris’s “Wormwood” Descends Into Time-Killing Conspiracy Fanfic”. The Village Voice. Retrieved December 17,2017.
- The case was Olson v. U.S., 12-cv-01924, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
- Frommer, Frederic J. (November 28, 2012). “Family Sues US Over Scientist’s Mysterious Death”. Associated Press. Archived from the original on December 2, 2012. Retrieved November 29, 2012.
- McVeigh, Karen (November 29, 2012). “CIA sued over 1950s ‘murder’ of government scientist plied with LSD”. The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved January 12, 2013.
- Gaines, Danielle (July 18, 2013). “Lawsuit by family of drugged Detrick employee dismissed”. Frederick News-Post. Retrieved October 20, 2013.
- Schoenberg, Tom (July 17, 2013). “CIA Cover-Up Suit Over Scientist’s Fatal Fall Dismissed”. Bloomberg News. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
- Scott, A. O. (December 14, 2017). “Review: ‘Wormwood’ Confirms That Errol Morris Is Our Great Cinematic Sleuth”. The New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2017.
- Marks, John D. (1979). The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate”: The CIA and Mind Control. Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-0773-6.
- Andrews, George (2001). MKULTRA : The CIA’s Top Secret Program in Human Experimentation and Behavior Modification. Healthnet Press. ISBN 0-9616475-8-2.
- Ronson, Jon (2005). The Men Who Stare At Goats. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-7060-6.
- Scott Shane, “Son probes strange death of WMD worker”, first published in The Baltimore Sun (September 12, 2004)
- The Frank Olson Project – explores the circumstances of Olson’s death and the political and ethical issues embedded in them
- on YouTube, Short documentary about the Frank Olson case
- audio interview with Olson’s sons, Part 1
- audio interview with Olson’s sons, Part 2
- “Did the CIA Drug Paul Robeson? – a Look at the Secret Program Mk Ultra” Part 1. 23:16 minutes. Amy Goodman interviews Paul Robeson, Jr., Dr. Eric Olson, Martin Lee. Democracy Now!. Thursday, July 1, 1999. Retrieved August 22, 2010.