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Who Was Bruce Ivins?


The news about Bruce Ivins has come as a shock to some scientists who had worked with him. Ivins was a microbiologist at the Army's biodefense laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland for over three decades. Today, several of his colleagues remembered him as a smart, hardworking and slightly geeky, and they said they had a hard time squaring that with the news that Ivins had become the focus of the FBI's anthrax investigation.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Ivins was working on anthrax back when few others were. According to an online medical database, he has published 38 research papers since 1983, all but one on anthrax. Martin Hugh-Jones at Louisiana State University says he wept when he heard Ivins had died. He says after the anthrax attacks in 2001, Ivins helped with the investigation.

Dr. MARTIN HUGH-JONES (Epidemiology, Louisiana State University): He worked exceptionally hard after '01, exhausted himself with the amount of work in his lab. Absolutely exhausted. He was processing thousands of samples a week.

KESTENBAUM: What was he like after the anthrax attacks?

Dr. HUGH-JONES: Much as he was before.

KESTENBAUM: He says they had beers together over the years and says Ivins would never have been on his shortlist of people to investigate as suspect. He said it didn't seem in his character.

Dr. HUGH-JONES: I mean, that's not impossible, but you'd have a guy who's severely depressed, and the FBI put pressure on you, and you commit suicide. Is it because of depression, or is it because of a guilty conscience? And if he didn't leave a note, you know?

KESTENBAUM: The FBI had no comment on Ivins' death. The Los Angeles Times quoted Ivins' brother, Thomas Ivins, as saying the FBI had to come to talk with him about his brother. In describing his brother's personality, he told the Times, quote, "He had in his mind that he was omnipotent."

Bruce Ivins' many years at the lab were not without incident. In 2002, Army investigators looked into a contamination problem where anthrax had been found outside of the proper containment facility. Ivins testified that he had swabbed and found what appeared to be anthrax on a desk but had not reported it. Quote, "I had no desire to cry wolf," he testified. Ivins explained that he thought it best to clean the dirty desk area and, quote, "prevent unintended anxiety and alarm."

David Franz was head of the biodefense lab for six years, but he left before the contamination incident.

Mr. DAVID FRANZ (Former Head, Biodefense Laboratory, Fort Detrick): He was a really enthusiastic guy. Whenever I meet him in the hall (unintelligible) oh, Colonel Franz, let me tell you about what I'm doing. and he was always very interested in his own research, but also Bruce was the kind of guy who was always willing to help anyone. And he was active in the community. I think he worked with the Red Cross quite a lot. I know he was active in his church.

KESTENBAUM: Franz says he also would not have pegged Ivins as someone who would send anthrax spores through the mail.

Mr. FRANZ: I just have no reason to suspect him, and I still don't. I'm interested in hearing what the FBI has to say. So right now, I'm just saddened, as are a lot of my colleagues who have known and enjoyed working with Bruce over many years.

KESTENBAUM: Franz said he knew nothing of Ivins' recent life, the fact that the FBI had been looking into him or that a woman, apparently his mental health counselor, had requested and received a restraining order against him, citing, quote, "homicidal threats."

A lawyer who represented Ivins issued a statement today saying, quote, "We are disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law."

David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Kestenbaum
David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.