Strange Cluster Of Microbiologists'
Deaths Under The Microscope
By Alanna Mitchell, Simon Cooper, and Carolyn
Compiled by Alanna Mitchell
The Globe and Mail
May 4, 2002
It's a tale only the best conspiracy theorist
could dream up. 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 bridge.
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 stroke.
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 charged. 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 medicine. 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 jogging. 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
So what does any of it
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,
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. Suspicious deaths The sudden and suspicious deaths of 11 of the
world's leading microbiologists. Who they were:
1. Nov. 12, 2001
Benito Que was said to have been beaten in a Miami parking lot and
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
6. Feb. 9, 2002
Victor Korshunov had his head bashed in near his home in Moscow.
7. Feb. 14, 2002 Ian
Langford was found partially naked and wedged under a chair in
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 himself.
10. March 24, 2002
David Wynn-Williams died in a road accident near his home in
11. March 25, 2002
Steven Mostow of the Colorado Health Sciences Centre, killed in a
plane he was flying near Denver
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