Frank Olson

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Frank Rudolph Olson
Frank Olson 1952.jpg
Olson in 1952
Born(1910-07-17)July 17, 1910
Hurley, Wisconsin, United States
DiedNovember 28, 1953(1953-11-28) (aged 43)
OccupationBacteriologist, biological warfare scientist
Years active1943–1953

Frank Rudolph Emmanuel Olson (July 17, 1910 – November 28, 1953) was an American bacteriologist, biological warfare scientist, and an employee of the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories (USBWL) who worked at Camp Detrick (now Fort Detrick) in Maryland. At a meeting in rural Maryland, he was covertly dosed with LSD by his colleague Sidney Gottlieb (head of the CIA's MKUltra program) and, nine days later, plunged to his death from the window of the Hotel Statler. The U.S. government first described his death as a suicide, and then as misadventure, while others allege murder.[1] The Rockefeller Commission report on the CIA in 1975 acknowledged their having conducted drug studies.


Olson was born in Hurley, Iron County, Wisconsin.[2] Olson lived on 5th Avenue and graduated from Hurley High School in 1927. [3]

Olson enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, earning both a B.S. and, in 1938, a Ph.D. in bacteriology. He married and had three children: Eric, Nils, and Lisa.[4] Olson worked for a time at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Work with the Army and CIA[edit]

Olson served as a captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps. Later he was recruited as a civilian employee 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.[1]

At some point while assigned as a civilian U.S. Army contractor, Olson began working as a CIA employee [1]

In May 1952, Frank Olson was appointed to the committee for Project Artichoke, an experimental CIA interrogation program.[5]

Frank Olson was appointed to head Special Operations Division, but later stepped down from that role.[6][better source needed]


On February 23, 1953, the Chinese broadcast charges that two captured American pilots had claimed the U.S. was conducting germ warfare against North Korea.[7] Other captured Americans such as Colonel Walker "Bud" Mahurin made similar statements.[8][9] The United States government threatened to charge some POWs with treason for cooperating with their captors. [10] After their release, the prisoners of war would publicly repudiate their confessions as having been extracted by torture.[11]

On 27 July 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, launching Operation Big Switch, the repatriation of Korean War POWs. (Ultimately, some 12,773 UN POWs were repatriated.) Twenty-one American POWs refused repatriation and defected, and the returning POWs were viewed as potential security risks. As a result, debriefings became "hostile investigations in search of possible disloyalty".[12]

The day the armistice was signed, Olson, a bacteriologist, arrived in Northolt, UK. Olson's home movies from the trip indicate he traveled to London, Paris, Stockholm, and Berlin.[13]27 July per Codename Artichoke, The CIA's Secret Experiments on Humans </ref> Upon his return, Olson's mood was noticeably changed, according to his family.[14][15][16]

According to coworker Norman Cournoyer, Olson had witnessed interrogations in Europe and become convinced that the United States had used biological weapons during the Korean War. Olson was also reportedly upset at having seen people killed during interrogation.[13][17]

Journalist Gordon Thomas claims that Olson subsequently visited William Sargant, a British psychiatrist with high level security clearances. According to Thomas, Sargant reported that Olson had become a security threat and his access to military facilities should be limited.[14]


A retreat was scheduled at a cabin at Deep Creek Lake for Wednesday, November 18, to Friday, November 20, 1953. A tentative participants list included eleven names.[18][19]

Detrick participants
  • Olson, a scientist with the Special Operations Division of the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick, who was suspected of being a security risk
  • Lt. Col. Vincent Ruwet, Olson's supervisor, the head of the Special Operations Division.
  • John L. Schwab, who had founded the division and in 1953 served as its lab chief[20]
  • John Stubbs, one of the Fort Detrick personnel[20]
  • Benjamin Wilson, a member of the Special Operations Division.
  • Herbert "Bert" Tanner, one of the Fort Detrick personnel[20]
  • John C. Malinowski, a Detrick staffer who didn't drink alcohol and thus was not dosed.[21]
  • Gerald Yonetz, a Special Operations Division scientist, also attended
CIA participants

On Thursday evening at about 7:30, Olson and some of the other participants were drugged with a "potential truth serum", decades later reported to be LSD.[24][25]:153

When Olson returned home, his wife noticed his sullen mood. That night, he confided that he had made "a terrible mistake" at the retreat and that people had laughed at him.[19]

Attempted resignation[edit]

After the retreat, Olson returned home at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, where he spent the weekend with his family.[26] On Sunday, November 22, Olson and his wife went to the movies, watching a biopic about protestant reformation leader Martin Luther.[27] Olson's wife Alice would later recall "we might have made a bad choice of movies"[28]

The next morning, Monday, November 23, Olson was reportedly waiting for his boss Col. Ruwet when Ruwet arrived at 7:30 a.m. Olson reportedly asked to quit the biowarfare program.[25]:157 Two hours later, Olson called home sounding relieved; he told his wife that Ruwet said, "I didn’t make a mistake. Everything is fine. I’m not going to resign."[5]

On Tuesday, November 24, Olson went to work as usual, but unexpectedly returned home before noon, accompanied by Stubbs. Olson explained Stubbs's presence, saying "they're afraid I might hurt you". Olson informed his wife that he had agreed to undergo psychiatric treatment.[5]

That same day, Olson, Ruwet, and Lashbrook flew to New York City. In New York, Olson and Lashbrook met with Harold Abramson, a CIA-linked medical doctor, who had worked with Olson years earlier on studies of aerosolization.[25]:158[29]


The Hotel Pennsylvania, NYC (called the Hotel Statler in 1953).

Around 2 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, November 28, 1953, Olson plummeted onto the sidewalk in front of the Statler Hotel. The night manager rushed to Olson, who was still alive and who "tried to mumble something". Olson died before medical help arrived. [14] Years later, the night manager recalled "In all my years in the hotel business, I never encountered a case where someone got up in the middle of the night, ran across a dark room in his underwear, avoiding two beds, and dove through a closed window with the shade and curtains drawn."[15]

Police found Robert Lashbrook sitting on the toilet in the room he shared with Olson.[14]

The hotel's switchboard operator reported having connected a call from room 1018A to a number listed as belonging to Dr. Harold Abramson. According to the operator, who overheard the entirety of the brief call, the occupant in 1018A reported "Well, he's gone" to which the call's recipient had replied "Well, that’s too bad."[14]

Lashbrook's wallet contained the initials, address and phone number of magician-turned-CIA asset John Mullholland. Lashbrook claimed he and Olson had visited Mulholland, although this is disputed by author H.P. Albarelli.[19][30][31]

At the scene and in their written report, the two police officers discussed similarities to the 1948 Laurence Duggan case, in which a high-level government official suspected of espionage died after plummeting from his New York office.[26][32] 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.[33]

Murder and wrongful death allegations[edit]


Although Olson's family told friends that he had suffered "a fatal nervous breakdown" which resulted in the fall,[1] the family had no real 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.[34] The family received apologies from President Gerald Ford and then-CIA director William Colby.[35]


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 completed immediately after Dr. Olson's death indicated that there were cuts and abrasions on the body.[36] Theories that sparked about Olson having been assassinated by the CIA led to the second autopsy, which 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, though did find 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 before the fall (one team member dissented).[1] Starrs called the evidence "rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide."[35]

Also in 1994, Eric Olson testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' "Legislation and National Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations" hearings on the US Government's "Cold War Era Human Subject Experiments". He spoke about how the sudden and mysterious death of his father deeply affected his family and appealed to the Congress to help with their ongoing battle to get the CIA to release more details of his father's final days.[37]

In 1996, Eric Olson 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.[1] In 2001, Canadian historian Michael Ignatieff wrote for The New York Times Magazine an account of Eric's decades-long campaign to clear his father's name.[1][38][39] Eric Olson asserts that 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."[40]


On November 28, 2012, sons Eric and Nils Olson filed suit in the US District Court in Washington, D.C.,[41] 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.[42][43] The case was dismissed in July 2013, due in part to the 1976 settlement between the family and government.[44] 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."[45]


Netflix released a documentary miniseries, entitled Wormwood (2017), based on the mystery of Olson's death; it was directed by Errol Morris.[46] 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. However, Hersh explained that he cannot elaborate or publish on the facts because it would compromise his source.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g 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.
  2. ^ "Dr. Frank R. Olson Dies in New York City". Iron County Miner. December 4, 1953. p. 1. Retrieved August 2, 2018 – via open access
  3. ^ "Dr. Frank R. Olson Dies In New York City". Montreal River Miner. December 4, 1953.
  4. ^ "Family Statement on the Murder of Frank Olson". Frank Olson Project. Archived from the original on February 11, 2003. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c A Terrible Mistake
  6. ^ Wormwood ep 1
  7. ^ "Red Germ Charges Cite 2 U.S. Marines" (PDF). New York Times. February 23, 1954. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
  8. ^ Harris, Sheldon H.; Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932–45, and the American Cover-up; Taylor & Francis; 2002 ISBN 978-0-203-43536-6[page needed]
  9. ^ "Marine Ex-P.O.W. Backs Schwable" (PDF). The New York Times. March 3, 1954. Retrieved March 13, 2020.
  10. ^ "Dirty little secrets". Al Jazeera. Government of Qatar. April 4, 2010. Retrieved May 21, 2019.
  11. ^ Lech, Raymond B. (2000), Broken Soldiers, Chicago: University of Illinois, pp. 162–163, ISBN 0-252-02541-5
  12. ^ Oldenburg, Don (April 15, 2003). "Tending to the Psychic Wounds of POWs" – via
  13. ^ a b 27 July departure per Codename Artichoke, The CIA's Secret Experiments on Humans
  14. ^ a b c d e Ignatieff, Michael (April 1, 2001). "C.I.A.; What Did the C.I.A. Do to His Father? (Published 2001)" – via
  15. ^ a b Kinzer, Stephen (September 6, 2019). "From mind control to murder? How a deadly fall revealed the CIA's darkest secrets" – via
  16. ^ Dead Silence, p. 95
  17. ^ Wormwood episode 2
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b c "The Search for the Manchurian Candidate - Chapter 5".
  20. ^ a b c d e "Olson Frank". The Weisberg Archive, Beneficial-Hodson Library, Hood College – via Internet Archive.
  21. ^
  22. ^ Weinberger, Sharon (September 10, 2019). "When the C.I.A. Was Into Mind Control". New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2019.
  23. ^ Times, Nicholas M. Horrock Special to The New York (July 18, 1975). "Destruction of LSD Data Laid to C.I.A. Aide in '73 (Published 1975)" – via
  24. ^ A Terrible Mistake, timeline
  25. ^ a b c Regis, Ed (1999). The Biology of Doom: America's Secret Germ Warfare Project. New York: Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 978-0-80505-764-5.
  26. ^ a b Wormwood, ep 1
  27. ^ Ignatieff, Michael (April 7, 2001). "Who killed Frank Olson?". the Guardian.
  28. ^ Keirsey, David (December 25, 2017). "Governmental Integrity".
  29. ^ Wormwood ep 2
  30. ^ Terrible Mistake
  31. ^ Times, Joseph B. Treaster Special to The New York (August 3, 1977). "C.I.A HIRED MAGICIAN IN BEHAVIOR PROJECT (Published 1977)" – via
  32. ^ A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson
  33. ^ 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."
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ a b Brown, Matthew Hay (December 8, 2012). "Six decades later, sons seek answers on death of Detrick scientist". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved September 24, 2016.
  36. ^ "CIA Documents Concerning The Death of Dr. Frank Olson" (PDF). Frank Olson Project. January 11, 1975. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  37. ^ "USA Cold War Era Human Subject Experiments - Prepared Testimony of Dr. Eric Olson" (PDF). Friends of WikiLeaks Chicago. September 28, 1975. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 11, 2021. Retrieved March 11, 2021.
  38. ^ 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.
  39. ^ Ignatieff, Michael (February 22, 2018). "Who Killed Frank Olson?". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  40. ^ a b Scherstuhl, Alan (December 12, 2017). "Errol Morris's "Wormwood" Descends Into Time-Killing Conspiracy Fanfic". The Village Voice. Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  41. ^ The case was Olson v. U.S., 12-cv-01924, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
  42. ^ 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.
  43. ^ McVeigh, Karen (November 29, 2012). "CIA sued over 1950s 'murder' of government scientist plied with LSD". The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved January 12, 2013.
  44. ^ Gaines, Danielle (July 18, 2013). "Lawsuit by family of drugged Detrick employee dismissed". Frederick News-Post. Retrieved October 20, 2013.
  45. ^ Schoenberg, Tom (July 17, 2013). "CIA Cover-Up Suit Over Scientist's Fatal Fall Dismissed". Bloomberg News. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
  46. ^ 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.

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