Bioterrorism hardly a new idea


Concept: Armies were trying to use microbes as biological weapons long before anybody knew what a germ was.

November 12, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

In the summer of 1763, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the British commander in chief of North America, received disturbing news from the Pennsylvania frontier.

Fort Pitt, a key British outpost situated in present-day Pittsburgh, was under siege by Indian tribes. Worse, Amherst learned, a second deadly foe had emerged from within the garrison: smallpox.

And that apparently gave Amherst an idea. On July 7, he dipped quill into inkwell and made this suggestion to his commander in the region:

"Could it not be contrived," Amherst wrote, "to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them."

Amherst's startling letter remains one of the clearest pieces of evidence historians have that bioterrorism is nothing new in North America. In fact, armies have tried to harness the killing-power of microbes since antiquity - centuries before they even knew what a germ was.

Around 400 B.C., Scythian archers dipped their arrow tips into a blend of blood and manure to make them more lethal. Others were more creative still. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian leader, Hannibal, reportedly commanded his forces to lob clay urns crammed with poisonous snakes onto Roman ships.

Ancient warriors might not have understood why such techniques worked (except maybe for the snakes), but "they knew what the effects could be," says John Ellis van Courtland Moon, a historian who has studied the roots of germ warfare.

Such weapons, of course, weren't known as biological weapons. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't record the first use of the concept ("bacteriological warfare") until 1924. Instead, says historian Leonard A. Cole, feces and the like were "poisons," the pre-18th-century catch-all term for any substance that sickened. The notion stuck. The word "virus," for example, is Latin for poison.

One of the most common ancient strategies for employing biological poisons was to contaminate the food or water supplies of one's enemy. Persian, Greek and Roman literature contain examples of armies fouling drinking wells with animal carcasses. Perhaps for this reason - and because ancient water supplies often became contaminated by natural means - many people drank wine instead of water, says Jan Gabbert of the Society of Ancient Military Historians. Perhaps that's why Spanish soldiers in 1495 laced wine with the blood of leprosy victims, a brew they then offered to enemy French forces.

As primitive as such techniques sound, they remain a terrorist favorite today. In the 1980s, an outbreak of giardiasis, a diarrheal illness caused by the bacteria Giardia lamblia, occurred in a Scotland apartment building. The source was later traced to a water tank deliberately contaminated with feces. In 1984, the Rajneeshpuram cult contaminated restaurant salad bars in The Dalles, Ore., with salmonella bacteria, sending 45 people to the hospital.

The invention of the catapult, used since Roman times, led to more creative biological weapons.

In 1650, a Polish artillery officer proposed a projectile made of "hollow spheres filled with the slobber of rabid dogs and other substances that can poison the atmosphere and cause epidemics." As Maj. Emil Lesho points out in his article "Feces, Dead Horses, and Fleas: Evolution of the Hostile Use of Biological Agents," the officer might have been the first to recognize the value of aerosolizing infectious agents. As far as historians know, the device was never built.

What was common was loading catapults with carts of manure and other biological cargo. One famous example occurred during the 1346 siege of Feodosiya, Ukraine, a once-thriving trading station on the Black Sea. The city, then known as Kaffa, was under attack by Mongols whose ranks were thinning because of an outbreak of plague. Attempting to make the best of a bad situation, the Mongols hurled their plague-infected corpses into the city to spark an outbreak. The plan may have worked: Plague did break out among the defending forces, who fled the city by boat to Constantinople, Genoa, Venice and other Mediterranean ports.

Some scholars have suggested the incident may have unleashed the Black Death, the plague pandemic that swept Europe about that time. Others aren't so sure. Documenting the use of biological weapons is hard enough for historians, records being so slim and eyewitness accounts notoriously unreliable. Pinpointing a dung-tipped arrow or diseased corpse as the source of an ancient outbreak is next to impossible in an age before epidemiology.

Medical historians say its more likely that Kaffa contracted plague the same way the Mongols did: through the bites of fleas from rats infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium.

"It's hard to prove by modern standards," says Moon, professor emeritus at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts. "We just don't have very much documentation."

Even the Fort Pitt smallpox episode is surrounded by uncertainty.

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