On Jan. 13, 1928, in an ISU laboratory, Ival Merchant, professor of veterinary microbiology and preventative medicine, sealed four vials with cotton and wax. Each contained a sample of one the world's deadliest diseases.
They were the first of hundreds of vials that would soon become Iowa State's anthrax collection.
Two of the vials were opened again 50 years later, in 1978, by R. Allen Packer, chairman of the ISU veterinary microbiology and preven tative medicine department. The contents of the glass tubes had become crystalline, but he placed the dried spores in a new medium and they flourished, as deadly as they had been after killing a cow half a century ago.
On Oct. 11, 2001, 83 years after the vial was first corked, it was destroyed.
All because of a false alarm.
Ames had made national news two days earlier after the Miami Herald and NBC claimed the Oct. 5 death of Bob Stevens, a photo editor of a tabloid newspaper in Florida, was caused by the "Ames Strain" of anthrax, harvested or manufactured in an ISU lab.
The dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine was thrown into a frenzy.
"It was a crazy day," said Norman Cheville, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine office. "In that two-day period, we had over 140 interviews and over nine television interviews."
At first, it was unknown whether Iowa State still had anthrax, said James Roth, distinguished professor of veterinary microbiology and preventative medicine.
"This building has over 1,000 rooms in it and probably a dozen microbiology labs," he said. "It took a bit to find out if we had some [anthrax]."
Eventually, the professor in charge of the lab area where the anthrax was stored affirmed that Iowa State did, indeed, possess anthrax.
"And there really wasn't much of a story there," Cheville said. "We didn't have an Ames Strain here. What we had were some old cultures that were isolated as far back as 1928."
What was being called the Ames Strain by the media was a genetically stable strain of anthrax. This means it maintains its virulence when grown in a lab, not that it was "manufactured" in any way, Cheville said. It was a popular, strong strain that was used in labs across the country.
According to the original reports, the Ames Strain came from a cow that died in an outbreak of anthrax in the early 1950s. It was later traced to a sample sent to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md. The sample's label said it was from Ames, Iowa.
But according to an article published Wednesday by the Washington Post, the Ames Strain had never once touched Iowa soil. It was originally isolated at the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostics Laboratory at Texas A&M University. The Ames reference came from the label on the special container used to ship the sample in 1980. The USDA Veterinary Services Laboratory supplies hundreds of the containers to labs across the country and had supplied the container to Texas A&M. The containers are marked with the Ames lab's address.
Which is why Roth, who now supervises the collection of animal bacteria pathogens, couldn't find the original strain.
"We didn't know what the Ames Strain was, either," he said. "We didn't name it the Ames Strain."
When the questions began, the collection was taken out of the drawer where it had been stored.
It was examined in a biological safety cabinet by two members of the ISU environmental health and safety unit. Although some labels were incomplete or cryptic, none of the more than 100 tubes were labeled "Ames Strain."
In a 1985 publication, U.S. Army Medica Research Institute of Infectious Diseases referred to the strain, now known to be from Texas, as the Ames Strain. The report also referred to the strain as being isolated in 1980, another reason Roth had doubts about the Iowa connection.
"It says it came from a cow in 1980. No one here remembers a case of anthrax in 1980, but we do remember a case in 1979," he said.
But even though they weren't sure how Iowa State got roped into the anthrax situation, the College of Veterinary Medicine decided it wouldn't happen again.
Killing a killer
Cheville, Roth and Dr. Donald Reynolds, associate dean of research for Veterinary Medicine, gathered on Oct. 11 to discuss the fate of the ISU anthrax collection. They called the FBI, the Center for Disease Control and the USDA labs and asked them if they should destroy their originals. All said yes.
"We went through a logical thought process," Cheville said. "Were these strains that we had important in the criminal investigation in the terror event?"
The FBI said no.
"Would any other repository in the U.S. want these cultures?"
No - all the genetic material had been sent to the national repository already.
"Was there any educational value to the cultures? Students were interested by these old cultures, but the government offices were going to require that they be guarded 24 hours a day. That was going to cost $30,000 a month and we'd rather spend that money on students," Cheville said.
So, at 5:30 p.m. that evening, every strain in Iowa State's collection was placed in pink plastic autoclave bags and pushed into the autoclave, a steam oven that heats up to 120 degrees Celsius and creates 15 pounds of pressure.
"For most bacteria, 15 minutes is plenty," Roth said.
The anthrax was steamed all night. The next day, all the vials were incinerated.
The only items saved were the metal can the original 1928 vials had been stored in and the handwritten, lead-pencil notes made by Packer in 1978. Both are now kept under glass at the Merchant Museum in the Vet Med College.
"We would do it again because there wasn't any reason to keep them," Cheville said. "Of course, we thoroughly and very clearly thought out what we wanted to do. If there had been any thought that these would have been useful to someone, we wouldn't have destroyed them, but there weren't."
Safe all along
Had the Ames Strain come from Iowa, there was never any chance of it being stolen from the ISU lab, Roth said.
Nothing was stolen or borrowed," he said. "The lab is locked routinely. The particular cabinet was locked. We weren't paranoid about it because we were taking the normal precautions."
And what Iowa State had in October was not pathogenic or virulent.
"It makes no sense that they could have gotten it from us," Roth said. "The Ames Strain is a highly virulent strain, and none of ours fit that description."
Living with the Ames Strain
Few people panicked when they heard they might have been living in a town that originated the terrorism on the East Coast, Roth said.
"We didn't hear too much reaction," he said. "[Vet Med students] are trained in bacteriology. They know it's not dangerous."
In the first weeks after the news broke, the Thomas B. Thielen Student Health Center received inquiries about anthrax vaccinations and information, said Lauri Dusselier, health promotion supervisor.
"We really didn't have requests about testing," she said. "A few asked about the vaccine, and it's not available through us - it's only available for military personnel."
ISU President Gregory Geoffroy was not directly involved with the decision to destroy the anthrax, but he said he approved of the way it was handled.
Although the publicity was not all flattering, it helped increase the awareness about Iowa State, he said.
"I think that more folks know about Ames, Iowa, than they did before," Geoffroy said. "Any time they know more about your location, it's to your benefit, especially since I think all the bad info was corrected."