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