Jeanne Guillemin, biological warfare expert and senior advisor at MIT, dies at 76

Jeanne Guillemin, a medical anthropologist and biological warfare expert, died on Nov. 15, 2019, at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was 76.

Guillemin received her bachelor’s degree in social psychology from Harvard University in 1968 and her doctorate in sociology and anthropology from Brandeis University in 1973. She was a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston College, where she taught for 33 years.

From 2006 until her death, she served as a senior advisor to the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP).

“Jeanne was a great scholar, with a ferocious appetite for getting to the bottom of whatever history she chose to study. Beyond her scholarship, she enlivened the Security Studies Program with both her wit and her charm, while also serving as a role model for our community, especially women scholars. She will be missed,” says Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and director of SSP.

Guillemin was instrumental in launching a women’s international speakers series at the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS), which has been effective in reaching women graduate students, fellows, and faculty in the greater Boston, Massachusetts area. 

Shortly before her death, she established an endowed fund at CIS to provide financial support to female PhD candidates studying international affairs. She described her gift as a resource to graduate students to help energize their sense of inquiry and search for knowledge. The first disbursements of this fund will be made in the spring for the next academic year. 

“Jeanne was a model of interdisciplinary excellence to all — and especially women. Her endowment was such a gracious and thoughtful gesture on her part. We will always remember Jeanne and the contributions she made to our community and beyond,” says Richard Samuels, the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of CIS.

The New York Times described her as a “scientific sleuth” and The Washington Post as a “pioneering researcher” in obituaries that lauded her groundbreaking work in biological warfare — a field where men had long outnumbered their female colleagues.

Indeed, she was a sought-after analyst on the use of biological weapons and published four books on the topic.

Her first book, “Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak” (University of California Press, 1999), documents her epidemiological inquiry into the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak in the Soviet Union. 

With a MacArthur Foundation writing award, she next wrote “Biological Weapons: The History of State-sponsored Programs and Contemporary Bioterrorism” (Columbia University Press, 2005), a valued course text.

Her 2011 book, “American Anthrax: Fear, Crime, and the Investigation of the Nation’s Deadliest Bioterrorist Attack” (Macmillan/Henry Holt, 2011), was praised by reviewers as the definitive version of the 2001 letter attacks that changed national policy regarding bioterrorism. It was awarded a 2012 Mass Center for the Book/Library of Congress Award in nonfiction. 

Her most recent book, “Hidden Atrocities: Japanese Germ Warfare and American Obstruction of Justice at the Tokyo Trial” (Columbia University Press, 2017) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It explains how Imperial Japan’s use of biological weapons during World War II failed to be prosecuted at the Tokyo war crimes trial of 1946-48.  

In addition to consulting and lecturing, she was a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on WMD (2009-13), served on the board of Transaction Books, and was an associate of the Harvard-Sussex Program on chemical and biological weapons disarmament. 

Her family has requested that gifts in her memory be made to the Jeanne E. Guillemin fund at MIT.