A FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY: WAS BOTULINUM TOXIN USED IN THE ASSASSINATION OF REINHARD HEYDRICH?
Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and Security Service in Germany during World War II, was arguably second only to Hitler as the chief perpetrator of the Holocaust.
He was assassinated in Prague in the spring of 1942 by Czech patriots who were trained and equipped by the British. The fatal injury resulted from the detonation of a bomb, which drove fragments through a seat in Heydrich's car and into his left flank, injuring the lung, diaphragm, and spleen.
The surgical care he received was surprisingly good, even when judged by today's standards. Heydrich's initial postoperative course was satisfactory, although he was modestly febrile and there was drainage from the wound of entrance. His condition worsened suddenly on the seventh postoperative day and he died early the next day.
An autopsy showed no apparent gross or microscopic cause of death; specifically, there was no missed injury, evidence of peritonitis, abscess, wound tract infection, or retained foreign bodies; and the heart and lungs appeared normal.1 The senior German pathologists in attendance wrote that "...death occurred as a consequence of ... bacteria and possibly by poisons carried ... by the bomb splinters...."2(p17) Although when we use modern terminology their assessment can be interpreted to mean that death was due to septic shock or multiple organ failure, looking at the incident from the vantage point of 50 years also allows for a more dia- bolical interpretation.
The extraordinary efforts made by the British and Americans to develop biological weapons in World War II are not generally known. For instance, by 1944, it would have been possible for the Allies to drop tens of thousands of bombs containing Bacillus anthracis (ie, anthrax) spores on major German cities.3 Other potential biological warfare agents were also being investigated, among them the neurotoxins of Clostridium botulinum. It is here that Heydrich's death becomes relevant.
Although we have no official written documentation, the chief scientist in charge of the British biological warfare program, Paul Fildes, is recorded as having made remarks to colleagues that can only be interpreted to mean that he and, by implication, a biological warfare agent, played a role in Heydrich's death: "[I] had a hand [in Heydrich's death]"3(p94) and "[Heydrich] was the first notch on my pistol."3(p94)
There is reason to believe that Fildes's research group was actively developing botulinum toxin as a weapon. That the British were very knowledgeable about the potential use of botulinum toxin in war is apparent from their request to the Canadian government for several hundred thousand doses of toxoid as a defense against possible German use. Although not carrying the weight of written documentation, Fildes's recorded state- ments, together with the known British interest in botulinum toxin, have led two British historians to propose that the bomb used to assassinate Heydrich contained botulinum toxin in addition to the usual explosive charge.
How likely is it that botulinum toxin played a role in Heydrich's death?
Certain observations are possible:
* The bomb used in the assassination was not of standard issue but instead was of distinctly unusual design: the upper third of a British hand grenade had been cut off and the open end and sides wrapped with tape.2 This strange modification becomes understandable if a way was needed to contaminate its contents with a foreign substance.
* Heydrich's clinical course does not explain his death. Although infection was likely to accompany his injury, his sudden deterioration and death do not conform to the usual expression of fatal sepsis. It is noteworthy that infection was not a prominent finding at autopsy. Heydrich's death is actually much more suggestive of a massive pulmonary embolism, yet his heart and lungs were said to be normal.
* Heydrich's death is not especially suggestive of botulism. The clinical course of wound botulism (albeit with a more-rapid onset) probably comes close to what should have happened if Heydrich's wound was actually contaminated with botulinum toxin. However, the apparent absence of such expected signs and symptoms as ptosis, diplopia, dysphonia, dysarthria, dysphagia, facial paralysis, and generalized mus- cular weakness culminating in respiratory insufficiency developing over several days speak against botulism.
The answer will probably never be known, although the British archives for this period, which are scheduled to be opened early in the 21st century, may contain relevant information