Who is Dr. Eugene Johnson? What was his role in Ebola research, and discovering the origins of Ebola?
Dr. Eugene Johnson is a scientist and Ebola expert who helped identify new strains of Ebola, and helped research the origins of Ebola.
Read more about Dr. Eugene Johnson and his contributions to Ebola research.
1983: U.S. Army Ebola Experiments
In 1983, a U.S. Army civilian scientist and Ebola expert named Dr. Eugene Johnson led research on the Ebola and Marburg viruses. Johnson and his team infected monkeys with Ebola Zaire, then gave them various drugs in hope of finding one that either treated or cured the virus.
Johnson conducted his experiments at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The work at USAMRIID focused on fighting viruses and bacteria—whether weaponized or naturally occurring—by developing vaccines and studying how to contain outbreaks.
1987: The Case of Peter Cardinal
In September 1987, a 10-year-old Danish boy died at Nairobi Hospital after traveling around Kenya with his parents and sister. The boy, known as Peter Cardinal, had symptoms that included:
- Skin turning blue with red spots, which eventually turned into large bruises
- Skin nearly separating from the tissue underneath it, as a result of blood pooling there
- Mucus in his lungs that made it difficult to breathe
- Bleeding around his brain
Dr. Eugene Johnson, who ran the Ebola experiments at the USAMRIID, infected monkey cells with a sample of the boy’s blood. The monkey cells quickly exploded and were destroyed. The same thing happened to guinea pig cells, which meant the virus was adaptable to different species.
Through more tests, Johnson confirmed what he suspected: Cardinal’s blood contained Marburg virus.
Dr. Eugene Johnson Tries Tracking Down Marburg
Dr. Eugene Johnson had to find out:
- Where Cardinal contracted the virus
- What kind of host carried the virus
Johnson found out that Cardinal had visited Kitum Cave with his family shortly before getting sick. Johnson considered two ways Cardinal could’ve become infected:
- Cardinal could’ve contracted Marburg through the air. Johnson had done a previous experiment revealing that Marburg and Ebola could be infectious when airborne. But this didn’t explain why Cardinal’s parents and sister didn’t get sick.
- Cardinal could’ve scratched his hand on a sharp rock of crystal, creating an entry point for the virus, which could’ve been on a surface in the cave.
Dr. Eugene Johnson led an expedition into Kitum Cave with 35 American and Kenyan doctors and scientists, as well as guinea pigs, baboons, and several types of monkeys. Since there were no virus detection tools, he put animals in cages at different locations to act as canaries in the coal mine—if one got sick, researchers narrowed their search to the location of that animal’s cage and tried to pinpoint how the animal was infected.
However, all the animals in Johnson’s expedition remained healthy.
Additionally, the team caught and dissected small animals and thousands of bugs from the cave, hoping to find a sign of Marburg. But they found nothing.
Dr. Eugene Johnson’s expedition neither confirmed nor ruled out Kitum Cave as the source of the virus. The only thing he knew definitively was what he knew before the expedition: that Marburg lived somewhere on or near Mount Elgon.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Hot Zone summary:
- The many different strains of Ebola, including the deadliest kind with a kill rate of 90%
- How scientists unraveled the mystery of a new strain of Ebola
- How Ebola could become airborne, becoming one of the deadliest viruses known