Sheldon H. Harris, 74; Historian Detailed Japan’s Germ Warfare


Sheldon H. Harris, a Cal State Northridge historian whose groundbreaking work helped establish that Japan conducted biological warfare experiments on Chinese civilians and military prisoners during World War II, has died. He was 74.

Harris died of a blood infection Aug. 31 at UCLA Medical Center, but lived long enough to experience a moment of particular gratification, his son, David, said.

Four days before Harris’ death, a Japanese court ended decades of official denials and acknowledged, for the first time, that Japan had used germ warfare in occupied China in the 1930s and ‘40s. Ruling in a lawsuit brought by victims, the court acknowledged the existence of the program but rejected the plaintiffs’ demands for compensation, saying the issue was covered under postwar treaties.

David Harris said his father, who did interviews on the court’s decision from his hospital bed, was gratified by the ruling. “It’s really rather remarkable that this judgment came down with such clarity just before he died,” Harris said. “It was a pretty nice crowning achievement.”


In 1994, Sheldon Harris published “Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-up,” an account of his findings about the Japanese germ warfare program and the role American officials played after the war in shielding top Japanese scientists from prosecution in exchange for their data. The United States was then developing its own biological program.

Based on years of research, including a dozen trips to China, the book detailed Harris’ findings that a special Japanese army unit, known as Unit 731, carried out large scale biological warfare experiments in northern China. Harris wrote that 10,000 to 12,000 people died in Japanese laboratories after they were infected with anthrax, typhoid, cholera, plague and other pathogens, and that more than 250,000 civilians were killed as a result of Japanese field tests in the Chinese countryside.

Harris and other scholars also found that U.S. authorities, who had seized the Japanese researchers’ archive after the war, later returned it to Japan and kept the information it contained secret. Harris filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the information for the book, and was also helped secretly by a handful of government workers, his son said. U.S. officials have since acknowledged some American complicity in concealing the existence of Japan’s germ warfare program.

Publication of his book brought Harris, by then retired from Cal State Northridge, a measure of international renown, especially in China. It also helped spur creation of a global network of activists, headquartered in California, that has worked to preserve memories of the wartime events and win reparations for the program’s victims.

Harris’ book was “tremendously significant” in clarifying and drawing attention to what occurred in wartime China, said Ignatius Ding, a spokesman for the Cupertino-based network, the Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War.

“Without him, we would never have had this breakthrough in court,” Ding said. “The work that he did had very tangible results.”

Following the court decision, Japanese officials announced that the government would send a delegation to China this month to begin excavating hundreds of abandoned chemical weapons, including bombs, shells, and containers of mustard gas and other toxins.

A man of diverse interests, Harris specialized in U.S. labor history and taught a variety of courses at Cal State Northridge before a trip to China in the early ‘80s dramatically changed his focus, according to his colleagues and family members.

While in China, Harris learned of the Japanese experiments during the war and was asked by Chinese colleagues in an academic exchange program if he would be willing to investigate, said Charles Macune, chairman of the Cal State Northridge history department.

“It changed his life,” Macune said. In recent years, Harris was a frequent speaker at human rights conferences, and on trips to China, he was treated as a celebrity, trailed by journalists as he met with survivors of the germ warfare program and their relatives.

On Harris’ final trip, in the spring, “people were lined up, waiting to tell him their stories,” said Martin Furmanski, a retired medical pathologist who accompanied the historian. “He was a hero to them.”

Harris was born in Brooklyn in 1928. He was educated at Brooklyn College, Harvard and Columbia. In addition to his tenure at Cal State Northridge from 1963 to 1991, he served for a time as a visiting professor at UCLA and taught earlier in his career at the University of Massachusetts.

Survivors include his wife, Sheila of Granada Hills; his son, and a daughter, Robin, both of San Francisco.

Funeral arrangements are private, but in lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Doctors Without Borders, his family said.