"Are you naive or something?" Nancy Nicolson said with genuine shock. The answer was obvious to her: the mainstream press has been "gag-ordered."
She and Garth Nicolson, the chairman of the department of tumor biology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, were sitting in his office last week revealing what she called "a side of science most people don't know about." That side is a conspiracy involving, among others, former president George Bush, former secretary of state Jim Baker, the Department of Defense, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Baylor College of Medicine. The Nicolsons say their investigation into the matter has been marked by phone taps, mail theft and even murder attempts. Garth Nicolson produced a letter from M.D. Anderson president Charles LeMaistre as evidence that top administrators have tried to stifle his research.
"We have uncovered perhaps one of the messiest controversies and cover-ups since Watergate," Garth Nicolson said. "This one makes Watergate seem like a tea party."
If you subscribe to such publications of the far-right fringe as The Spotlight or Criminal Politics, or if you listen to such radio shows as Rob Thorn's locally produced Voice of Freedom, perhaps you have heard the Nicolsons' story before. It seems a Houston company was involved in the manufacture of a biological weapon that was sold to Iraq and eventually used on American soldiers during the Gulf War. The weapon is one cause of the host of ailments known as Gulf War Syndrome, Garth Nicolson says. He believes he's found a simple treatment but that victims are being denied care to hide the American origins of biological weapons, which have been banned by international treaties.
Perhaps it all sounds far-fetched, but Nicolson is a respected scientist at a respected hospital. He's among the 100 most-cited researchers in the world in the biomedical sciences, and he sits on the board of the American Association of Cancer Research. He calls his study of Gulf War Syndrome "probably as important as anything I've done."
"Just focus on the issue and what we're doing,'' he urged, "because this other stuff sounds kind of crazy."
But his wife argued, "People need to know, Garth. It's been pretty hellacious around here.''
And so on that note, their story began:
In 1987, while she was an instructor in the department of immunology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine, Nancy Nicolson became extremely ill. She sought help from doctors, but they couldn't explain it, and she was partially paralyzed and weighed only 70 pounds when she and her husband began testing antibiotics on her. They tried half a dozen before finding doxycycline, which proved to be the cure.
At the time of her illness, her department had been doing research on tiny microorganisms known as mycoplasma, and Nancy Nicolson now believes she was deliberately infected with one of these "because I have the wherewithal to uncover what people are trying to hide." When she returned to work in 1988, she says, "colleagues treated me as if they had seen a ghost."
In 1991, about six months after returning from military service in the Gulf War, Garth Nicolson's stepdaughter from a previous marriage began suffering similar symptoms -- chronic fatigue, aching joints, fevers, vomiting, diarrhea. It sounded to Garth Nicolson like another mycoplasma infection, and so on his suggestion, his stepdaughter began trying doxycycline. She soon felt better and began passing the word to her military friends about the cure. With a letter from Nicolson if necessary, they obtained prescriptions from their doctors. Nicolson later contacted 73 veterans by telephone or letter, and he says 55 reported an improvement in health.
"A lot of the people who were getting sick were high-level government assassins," Nancy Nicolson explains. "When we started helping them and their families, they started talking to us."
As their "intelligence sources" began filling them in, Nancy Nicolson became a less than cooperative member of the Baylor faculty. She was fired in 1991, she says, "because I wouldn't go along with germ warfare." (A Baylor spokeswoman said that personnel matters are confidential, but Nancy Nicolson's termination "had nothing to do with germ warfare.")
After that, as a visiting scientist at M.D. Anderson, she began working more closely with her husband. By now, Garth Nicolson had learned of a "mystery illness" spreading among employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville. The symptoms were the same again. "We knew right away what the problem was," he says. He contacted the prison system, he says, and once again, doxycycline cured much of what ailed them.