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Biological warfare has long been a part of the history of humanity. In fact, it is thought that the use of poisonous agents predated recorded history, though the crude use of biological weapons is first documented in written and visual form as early as 600 bc. That year, the Athenian General Solon contaminated the water supply of the besieged Greek city of Cirrha with black hellebore root. Crippled by severe diarrhea, the Cirrhaeans were defeated easily. Some two hundred years later, in about 400 bc, Scythian archers used arrowheads dipped in animal feces, blood, and decomposed carcasses to combat their opponents (Fig. 10–1). Interestingly, there is a long historical and prehistorical association between arrows and poison as dipping arrowheads in poison was the typical means for delivering poisonous substances. In both Greek and Latin, the derivation on the word toxin is related to arrow. The great Carthaginian general, Hannibal (247–182 bc), led his troops to victory over the King Eumenes of Perganum in part by hurling clay pots filled with snakes onto the decks of the Greek armada. Hannibal also used plants containing a belladonna-like chemical to incapacitate his enemies (see Chapter 21).

Figure 10–1

Solon of Athens, credited with using black hellebore root to debilitate and thus defeat the Cirrhaeans.

Courtesy of Architect of the Capitol.

Both plague and smallpox have been used effectively to sow terror and death. During the Middle Ages, attacking armies sometimes catapulted the corpses of plague victims into besieged cities. In 1346, for example, the city of Kaffa became pestilent following a Tartar attack using this early form of biological warfare. During the French and Indian Wars in colonial America, Lord Jeffrey Amherst ordered that smallpox-contaminated blankets be sent to Native American tribes allied with the French. This type of practice became so common and so effective a military tactic that during the Revolutionary War, General Washington ordered variolation of the entire Continental army. Variolation required immunization with live vaccines taken from lesions of smallpox victims. Although effective, variolation also caused disease at a rate of about one for every 2,000 immunized individuals (Fig. 10–2).

Figure 10–2

A political cartoon critical of smallpox vaccination of the Continental army.

Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

World War I is remembered more for the utilization of chemical weapons than for that of biological ones; however, anthrax was used extensively to disrupt economic and political life by targeting enemy livestock. The brutal consequences of chemical and biological warfare during the great war galled the international community into agreeing to the first multilateral agreement to ban the use of biological and chemical weapons in 1925, the so-called Geneva Protocol.

During World War II (WWII), improved scientific understanding of microbes and microbiology spurred the ...

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