Cold War maneuvering between the United States and the Soviet Union and the cloak and dagger intrigue of American spycraft is about as far removed from the serenity of the Northwoods as one can get. Nevertheless, during the early days of the Cold War, a CIA program known as MK-Ultra placed one Northwoods native into the middle of the worst of the conspiracies.
Frank Olson was born in 1910 to Olaf and Anna Olson in the town of Hurley. He was an exceptional student and graduated from Hurley High School in 1927. He went on to the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he distinguished himself as an honors student in the study of agriculture. He briefly worked as a substitute teacher in Hurley but returned to Madison and earned a Ph.D. in bacteriology in 1938. It was in Madison that he entered the R.O.T.C. and earned a commission in the army, although he remained on the inactive list. He went on to Purdue University in Indiana where he taught while continuing his research in agronomy. He married Alice Wicks of Eau Claire in 1940.
Olson was called into active duty when World War II broke out. He became a captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and spent most of his service in Maryland. When the war ended, Olson’s former academic advisor, Ira Baldwin, who had become technical director of the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Camp Detrick in Maryland, recruited Olson to work there. This was where much of the army’s secret bioweapons research took place.
The use of biological and chemical weapons had been banned since the end of World War I, but fear of both fascist and communist threats led the U.S. to develop a program in secret. There are certainly indicators that the U.S. deployed such weapons in the Korean conflict.
Through the Office of Scientific Intelligence, the CIA became involved. This is how the MK-Ultra research into brainwashing, mind control, and other human behavioral control experiments came to be. Frank Olson worked in the Operations Division of the Army’s Biological Laboratory at Fort Detrick, received top-secret security clearance, and worked with the CIA on MK-Ultra. How involved Olson was in tests on human subjects remains controversial, but he likely witnessed “extreme” interrogations and grew to have ethical concerns.
Internal discussions about Olson’s misgivings became a topic of concern, and at a November 1953 conference Olson became an unwitting part of the experiments when he was served an alcoholic beverage laced with LSD. Five days afterward, Olson wanted to resign, but was placed in the custody of Robert Lashbrook. Lashbrook escorted Olson to New York for psychiatric evaluation. The two men took a hotel room together. On November 27, Olson called his wife to say he was returning to home to Maryland the next day. Early the next morning, he went through the window of the room he was sharing with Lashbrook and fell to his death.
Lashbrook claimed he was asleep and awoke to the sound of breaking glass, and the official CIA report said it was suicide. However, a 1994 autopsy revealed that Olson had received a blow to the head before going through the window and that his death was more likely a homicide.
In 1975, the CIA was compelled to admit that it had used LSD on US citizens, and Frank Olson’s family received an apology from then President Gerald Ford for what had happened to him. Nevertheless, the damage done to one Northwoods family could not be undone.