Debbie Knight

Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

Lost bits of research history: Smallpox

In observation, research issue(s) on July 8, 2014 at 5:41 pm


Two news articles I read today told of several vials of Smallpox dating back to the 1950’s that were discovered in an unused National Institutes of Health storage room — in an unauthorized lab space.

A little scary, yes.

But you might wonder how could that happen?

In the past couple of years, I’ve personally cleaned out several laboratories of researchers who have moved on or retired. I can tell you that a box of vials could easily find its way to the back of a cabinet or deep in the permafrost of an ultra-low freezer.

Now when I cleaned out these labs, I didn’t find anything so dangerous as vials of freeze-dried highly restricted human pathogens. Thankfully!

But what I did find was a combination of disgust and amazement. Rusted cans of disinfectant, plastic containers of formalin-fixed mouse bits, microscope specimens that might have dated back to the turn of the century, chemical bottles with peeling labels and rusted lids.

Many years ago, when my department allowed researchers to scavenge equipment (perhaps a better term would be “upcycle”?) from a retired researcher’s lab, I found a long-dead octopus named Cornelius floating in a jar of murky formalin. He was circa 1980’s — not quite the 1950’s like the specimens found in the NIH lab.

Had these things not been removed from the defunct labs, these lost bits of research history might have passed unwittingly to the next researcher to take possession of the lab space.

A prime example of this can be found in a news story from three years ago. A researcher discovered a dusty old box containing experimental samples dating back to the 1950’s of his mentor who previously occupied the lab space. And the researcher found a wonderful new finding waiting to be discovered.

So, the discovery of long-forgotten vials of Smallpox in an unauthorized lab IS big news. If not, disturbing news.

But how those vials from the 1950’s wound up in a rarely used cold storage room may not be as sinister as it might sound.