The Frank Olson Legacy Project

Memo from Stephen Endicott,
Professor of History,
York University,
analyzing the documents obtained by the Olson family from CIA Director William Colby in June 1975


Memo from Stephen Endicott regarding the death of Frank Olson.

Professor of History, York University, Toronto,

Co-author with Edward Hagerman of:
The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea

4 February 1999
Toronto, ON, Canada,

Here are my comments on twenty-five pages from the package of documents which I understand that the Director of Central Intelligence, William Colby, gave to the Olson family some years after the tragic death of Frank Olson. I’ve read them through twice, and about all I can do is summarize the impression that they leave on my mind.

I can see why the Olson family feel so dissatisfied with the official verdict of suicide as the cause of his death. At the same time it seems clear that Mr. Colby would not have given them the papers had he thought there was anything contained in them that might make possible a challenge and reversal of the official verdict. (One paragraph of the CIA report on Mr. Olson's death is blanked out by a censor) Perhaps Colby didn’t pay close attention, because there are certainly some disquieting matters in the conduct and reported conversations of Frank Olson’s colleague, Robert Lashbrook, and the New York allergist, Dr. Harold Abramson, in the hours after Mr. Olson’s death.

Here is a summary of the scenario as formed in my mind:

Frank Olson, Ph.D, a biologist by profession, was a disturbed man in 1953. He had been working in the Biological Laboratory of the Special Operations Division, of the U. S. Army Chemical Corps (formerly known as the Chemical Warfare Service) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, for about ten years without any problem. According to his colleagues he had always been a popular, extroverted person and his professional, scientific work was considered to be outstanding. He was a branch chief and in October 1952 the confidence which his superiors had in him was reflected in the fact that they promoted him to be Acting Chief of the entire Special Operations Division.

After six months, in March 1953, Olson reverted back to his former position at his own request. It was also in March 1953 that he became mentally and emotionally disturbed. According to his wife, Alice, he could no longer sleep at nights, and she urged him to consult a psychiatrist. The cause of his disturbance is not made clear in the documents at hand, but it is said that he had begun to feel guilty about something. Was it from overwork and worry caused by the burdens of heading up the whole Division? It might have been, but by now he had been relieved of that burden. Another answer is suggested by a colleague: “It is well known,” wrote Dr. Howard Abramson after Olson's death, “that it is an occupational hazard to mental stability to be doing the type of work connected with his [Olson’s] duties. Guilt feelings are well known to occur to a greater or less extent.” (Colby Pg. 38)

What was the nature of Olson’s duties? Stripped of technical language and put bluntly, they were to use his knowledge of biological and medical science to perfect secret ways to kill or incapacitate other humans, animals and plants.

The Special Operations Division of Fort Detrick was the most secret of secret places in the biological warfare program and only people with the highest security clearance could work there or gain admission to its grounds. Frank Olson counted himself in this number. It was the centre of covert biological warfare and as such the record of its activities are deeply buried. But it is known that the SOD was considered to be very effective, receiving commendation on “the originality, imagination and aggressiveness it has displayed in devising means and mechanisms for the covert dissemination of bacteriological warfare agents.” (Our BW book, pg 70.) When William Colby appeared before a Senate Committee in 1975 to explain the Agency's involvement in biological warfare he remarked that from the outset this activity “was characterized by extreme compartmentation” [sic] and “a high degree of secrecy within CIA itself.”

Only two or three Agency officers at any time were cleared for access to Fort Detrick activities. (Senate hearings, pg 6). Frank Olson was one of these. But because of the compartmentalization it is unlikely that Frank Olson had much idea of what took place at Detrick beyond his work bench until he was promoted to be acting chief of the Special Operations Division. Even then he would have no knowledge of what happened to the products of Detrick when they left the encampment and he certainly had no idea that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had an offensive, first use policy for biological weapons applicable to the Korean War then in progress. He was working as a pure research scientist, solving technical problems surrounding the cultivation and spread of bacteria.

In late February and early March 1953 something happened which would have raised the profile of the Korean War sharply in Frank Olson’s mind. Two high ranking officers of the United States Marine Corps, who had been taken prisoner by the Chinese army in Korea, made lengthy, detailed confessions about the U. S. military forces using biological weapons in Korea and China. The Chinese broadcast their statements around the world. A glance at The New York Times Index for 1953 (pg 573) under the heading “Germ Warfare” shows the large number of articles on the subject day after day, and charges about the use of biological warfare as a crime against humanity.

Even though U. S. officials denied the Chinese claims, Frank Olson would have faced the stark possibility that his work was no longer “pure research.” It was at this time that his feelings of guilt arose, and according to his wife, he began to have sleepless nights.

How would the CIA cope with a man who is beginning to have doubts and who is in a position to reveal the most secret of its secrets?

In his early years at the biological warfare laboratory, during World War II, one of Frank Olson's close colleagues there had been Dr. HAROLD ABRAMSON who was a specialist in immunology and allergies and who initiated the breakthrough therapy of penicillin aerosol for infected lungs. More recently his colleagues at the laboratory included DR. SID GOTTLEIB, who was chief of the Technical Services Division, and ROBERT V. LASHBROOK, Ph.D, who joined the organization only in 1952. Olson, Lashbrook and possibly Gottlieb were also members of the CIA group at Detrick. The chief of the Special Operations Division was VINCENT L. RUWET, a Lt. Colonel in the Chemical Corps and a man who described himself as a close personal friend of the Olson family. These men interacted with, one might say surrounded, Frank Olson in his last days before he either committed suicide, or as some suspect, was murdered.

In the autumn of 1953 Olson's psychological state of mind worsened. This worsening coincided with considerable publicity in the press about the return to the United States of twenty-five airmen who had made confessions of using biological warfare in Korea. U. S. authorities claimed that the Chinese had “brainwashed” their prisoners, cleaned out their minds and inserted the false information. It was an absurd idea, a caricature of how the Chinese had induced their prisoners to write elaborate confessions, nevertheless, there was much discussion of the question at the United Nations and in the newspapers. (See New York Times Index, ibid.)

Meanwhile the CIA had become interested in the possibilities of “brainwashing.” Proof of this, which came to light many years later, was the contract it made with a Canadian psychiatrist in Montreal, Dr Ewen Cameron, to experiment illegally on his patients with LSD and possibly other drugs for such purposes.

One way, therefore, for the Agency to deal with its troubled member at Fort Detrick would be to have him forget all he knew about Special Operations, to clear out his mind by this supposed new technique of “brainwashing.” Then he could safely be allowed to retire from the service and return with his family to his home town in Wisconsin. Frank Olson himself believed “that the CIA group had been putting something like Benzedrine in his coffee at night to keep him awake.” (Colby Pg 37-38)

The Colby documents reveal that “an experiment” was tried on Olson, involving the use of some drug. The experiment appears to have been conducted with Olson's consent and took place on Thursday, 19th November 1953. The experiment failed to work as intended. It did not clear his mind; it worsened his anxieties and nine days later Frank Olson was dead, having jumped or been pushed through a window on the tenth floor of the Statler Hotel in New York City.

Reporting on Frank Olson’s death in the Colby Papers proceeds on three levels.

At the first level there are the reports of the New York city policeman who came to the scene after a call from the Statler Hotel around 4 a.m. on 28th November as well as comments by two New York city detectives. These officers conclude that it was a case of suicide, although they toy with the idea that it might be a homicide because Robert Lashbrook had stayed in the same hotel room as Olson and because of his reluctance to answer certain questions.

At the second level are the reports of two Special Agents sent to question Lashbrook in New York City.

At the third level are memoranda by Dr. Howard Abramson and Lt. Colonel Vincent Ruwet giving their understandings about Frank Olson and About what happened in the last few days of his life.

The most striking information is that contained in the report of the two Special Agents who are identified only as “reporting agent for Case No 73317,” and “Walter P. T.,” which centres on the activities of Robert Lashbrook. The agency controlling these two agents is not identified in the documents. Are they also CIA? Or Department of Defense? The two agents, who did not seem to have any prior knowledge about Lashbrook (CIA agent) or his work unit, interviewed him intensively and followed him around all day following Olson's death.

What follows are my comments on some ambiguities, coincidences and question marks that arise from the report of the two special agents on the death of Frank Olson:

1. Lashbrook said that Olson had jumped through the window shade and the window glass. What kind of window shade was it? Was it broken? If the window shade was Venetian blinds it would have been a virtually impossible scenario. Could it be that the window shade was lowered after the man went through the window?

2. The first call that Lashbrook made was not to the hotel management or the police, but to his superior, Dr. Sid Gottlieb, at his home in Virginia, to tell him what had happened. Then he reported to the hotel desk clerk and telephoned Dr. Abramson. He did not call Lt-Col Ruwet, the chief of the Special Operations Division, right away. Ruwet was a close friend of the Olson family, he had been in contact with Olson daily since June 1953 and had been with Lashbrook and Olson in New York until the previous day. Was there any significance to the sequence of these calls? [Gottlieb is mentioned by Colby in his testimony to the Senate Committee in September 1975, pg 22-23 as the person who destroyed CIA records on BW activities.]

3. Lashbrook told the police that Olson had come to New York on 24th November to seek help for mental illness. In view of Olson’s upset state of mind that was not unreasonable. But why had Olson been taken to see Dr Abramson who was not a psychiatrist at all but a skin allergist? Was it because Olson was suffering from some embarrassing aftermath of the drug ‘experiment’ of 19th November as well as from nervous disorder? Was it because Abramson, an old acquaintance of Olson's in the Chemical Corps, could handle the situation without publicity? Lashbrook had also given Lt-Col Ruwet the impression that Olson was coming to New York to see a psychiatrist. (Colby, p. 46)

4. When Olson died there were no papers to identify him. Reportedly he himself had thrown away his papers, his identification badge and his wallet while walking around the city the previous day. As a result when reporters came to the police station they could get no information about the dead man's identity and the story never hit the New York papers. This coincidence was extremely convenient for Lashbrook, the Chemical Corps and the CIA.

5. Lashbrook shared an apartment in Washington, D. C. with EDWIN SPOEHEL. Who was Edwin Spoehel?

6. The Reporting Agent notes that other than exhibiting fatigue, Lashbrook “appeared completely composed” throughout 28th November, the day Olson died. Robert Lashbrook must have been a hard-boiled type, nerves of steel.

7. Sid Gottlieb instructed Lashbrook to get a report from Dr. Abramson on Olson and bring it back to Washington with him. Lashbrook and special agent Walter P. T. Jr. went together to Abramson's office at 9:15 in the evening of the 28th. Lashbrook asked agent Walter P. T. to remain in the reception room while he spoke to Dr. Abramson. While waiting in the outer office agent Walter P. T. was nevertheless able to overhear the conversation of the two men, which he records in his report. What transpired between Lashbrook and Abramson?

A. First they talked about security, and Abramson said to Lashbrook that he was worried about him. Did Lashbrook have something to worry about?

B. Lashbrook told Dr. Abramson something he should put in his report about Olson. The CIA agent dictated it to Dr. Abramson. First they both listened to portions of a tape recording of a conversation between “a physician or psychiatrist and the SUBJECT.” Then Lashbrook dictated to Abramson on the SUBJEC’'S behaviour prior to his demise. Since Abramson had attended Olson several times on the days previous to his death, why was it not sufficient that Abramson, a medical doctor, write up his own report?

It seems that the CIA wanted to make sure certain things were in a report that might become the basis of a claim to the Bureau of Employees Compensation. [ From reading Dr. Abramson's report it is not readily evident what the CIA wanted in particular to have in it.] C. Lashbrook and Abramson adjourned their discussion and moved into another room apparently relaxing with a drink. Agent Walter P. T. heard Abramson remark to Lashbrook that he “was worried as to whether or not the deal was in jeopardy” and he thought “the operation was dangerous and the whole deal should be reanalyzed.” What was the “deal” which both Dr. Abramson and CIA Agent Lashbrook knew about?

What “operation” was dangerous? Was this conversation still relating to the Olson case? After all these years there may be no possibility of following up to find answers to these elusive and sometimes disturbing questions. Without knowing something more about them, especially about the shadowy figure of Robert Lashbrook, it would be difficult to determine with greater certainty how Frank Olson met his death. I hope that my speculations, and they are nothing more than that, may be of some interest and modest help to you.


Stephen Endicott


June 6, 2001:

Dear Steve and Ned,

After studying your remarkable book more carefully it occurs to me to ask you about one of the most mysterious details in the documents I received from William Colby in 1975. I wonder if this will mean anything to you.

I refer to a two-page document entitled:


The memorandum is dated 3 February 1975.

Both pages of the document are totally whited-out with the exception of a paragraph near the bottom of the second page. This reads as follows:

7. Little information pertaining to the suicide of Frank OLSON was found in the collection of materials made available by DDS&T. However, one brief memorandum dated 14 December 1953 mentioned the OLSON incident. The memorandum stated in part “LOVELL reported that QUARLES and George MERCK were about to kill the Schwab activity at Detrick as “un-American.” The memorandum later continued "LOVELL knew of Frank R. OLSON.”


Dr. John Schwab, whom I knew, was the founder and first director of Special Operations at Detrick.

I wonder what other light you might be able to shed on this, particularly on what “the Schwab activity” might refer to.

The other thing that has occurred to me on re-reading your book and considering the role of the CIA in BW in Korea is the very likely possibility that my father was the CIA’s man at Detrick, whose job may well have been that of linking Detrick's resources with the CIA's task of administering the secret deployment of BW in cooperation with the Air Force. This impression is strengthened by information we now have that proves that the purpose of Presidential “apology” our family received in 1975 was to deflect our intention to sue, which might have led to our discovering the true nature of my father's job. It was not only the cover-up of his “bizarre death” (as this information refers to it) that was in question, but the nature of his work.

Best regards, - Eric

June 7, 2001

Dear Eric,

The meaning of “Schwab activity” is not apparent from the documents you have. I have a speculation about it though. It is related to that part of Special Operations which was said to be was one of Gottleib’s specialities: creating means (darts, toxins etc.) to assassinate particular individuals. I suppose that to people like George Merck this might seem to be an “un-American” activity. Merck, as you know, was one of the strongest promoters of the idea of using biological weapons in war, therefore he obviously wouldn’t have considered BW as such to be “un-American.” But individual acts of terror might have been in a different, troubling category in their minds. It’s just a thought.
I was reading your website yesterday and was quite amazed to find out about the circumstances of Colby's death on the eve of being called up to testify before a Grand Jury! Did that Grand Jury meet and mark recommendations about investigating your father's death?

Best, Steve


The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea.


Link to Stephen Endicott web site