Matthew S. Meselson waited quietly in the car while female associates handled the delicate work of questioning families of people who had died of anthrax. The scientist had charmed, wrangled, and nagged politicians on two continents from 1979 to 1992 for permission to probe a strange outbreak of the disease in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk 1979. But just days before Meselson boarded a plane for Moscow to conduct the interviews, former President Boris Yeltsin, a Sverdlovsk official during the outbreak, admitted that "military developments" had played a role.

Meselson, now Thomas Dudley Cabot professor of the natural sciences at Harvard University, persisted in investigating the largest-known epidemic of deadly human inhalational anthrax. "We had no idea what would happen when we knocked on the door and said we want to talk about anthrax," he says. "Would [the female investigators] be kicked out? Nobody kicked them out. Everybody gave...

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