Moment of Indiana History

Vigo Bioweapons Plant

Current events have reacquainted Hoosiers with the state’s role in the history of US manufacture of chemical weapons. Since 2005, the Army has been neutralizing a stockpile of V-X nerve agent that had been made and stored at the Newport Chemical Depot since the 60s. Efforts at the Vermillion County site have received a lot of media attention—especially due to the controversy surrounding disposal of the resulting wastewater.
A site in Vigo County, however, played an equally significant role in our nation’s involvement with weapons of mass destruction.

In the early 1940s, fears that Germany and Japan were producing biological weapons fueled British and American germ warfare programs. Bacteriologist Ira Baldwin, an Indiana native, was put in charge of the U.S. efforts. In 1944, in response to a British imperative for 500,000 anthrax bombs, the Vigo Ordnance Plant was outfitted with the technology to fill the order—which exceeded the production capacities of the military’s main facility at Camp Detrick, Maryland. The plant near Terre Haute was designed to ferment anthrax and botulinum microbes and fill bombs—anywhere, it has been estimated, from 500,000 to 1.5 million per month. For about eighteen months, the facility produced anthrax bacterium simulant during safety tests, but had never manufactured any real bioweapons by the war’s end in 1945.

The Vigo site was subsequently demilitarized and sold to the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in 1948. Although research and development of bioweapons continued elsewhere in the U.S. until a presidential ban in 1969, the 700-acre Vigo property served as Pfizer’s Agricultural Division, where they produced animal feeds and veterinary antibiotics from the 1950s through the 70s. The munitions factory that had served as the hub of the germ warfare program remained largely undisturbed, however.

A Russian team inspected the facility in 1994 as part of the Trilateral Agreement to ensure compliance with the international Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. The dilapidated plant they encountered was clearly non-operational but revelatory of the nation’s formidable capacity for germ warfare in the mid-40’s. After remediating the site, Pfizer sold the ordnance plant and over 100 acres to Danisco in 2001. The Danish company is one of the largest manufacturers of food ingredients, sweeteners and industrial bioproducts in the world.

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