Week 4 Preparedness Blog:  Bioterrorism 1870 to 1918

Queen Victoria ruled the world, dominating the British Empire from 1837-1901, covering the end of the industrial revolution to the beginnings of chemical and biological great ages of discovery. Marriages were secured between royal families of Europe to maintain bloodlines, lessen territorial and trade tensions, plus secure treaties and alliances between nations. The nine children and forty grand-children of Queen Victoria dominated the royal families of Europe. Great Britain, Prussia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Norway, Sweden and Spain all had a grand-child of Queen Victoria on its throne at the onset of the 20th century. Unfortunately, genetic inheritance was only beginning to be understood; Queen Victoria was a carrier of the Hemophilia gene, which she passed along to four of her children, with her son Leopold being afflicted and three of her daughters being carriers. Ultimately, several of her grandsons were afflicted including the heir to the Russian throne and Hemophilia became known as the Royal Disease. Disastrously, the intra-familial rivalries of Queen Victoria’s descendants (the English King, German Kaiser and Russian Czar were all 1st cousins and their nations all rivals) resulting in imperialism leading to nationalism and militarism with nations entering alliances for mutual gain and protection. By the early 20th century, Europe had evolved into two armed camps of aligned nations with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Empire (Turkey) opposing the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia. An assassination in the Balkans would spark activation of the two opposing alliances, erupting into World War I in 1914.

Many inventions of the industrial revolution lent themselves to significant advances in the chemical and biological sciences. Biological discoveries led by, first, Louis Pasteur in the 1860’s, proving the existence of microorganisms and their ability to cause disease; followed by Robert Koch in the 1870’s demonstrating enhanced understanding of the connection between microorganisms and infectious diseases. Later research would show specific microorganisms caused specific diseases, thus disproving the old theories of “bad vapors” as the source of infectious diseases. While this biological revolution was taking place, the chemical sciences and industry were also dramatically advancing with significant discoveries and developments; particularly in Germany and Great Britain. The late 19th century showed substantially enhanced capabilities to create many new compounds and materials thru chemical reactions and processes.

The new biological and chemical discoveries quickly found their way to World War I battlefields. Chemical Agents such as Chlorine, Phosgene and Mustard Gas were used by both sides against enemy troops to gain battlefield tactical advantages. World War I armies were very dependent on horse cavalry, along with horse and mule drawn weapons, wagons and equipment. Germany utilized biological agents as weapons to a much greater degree than all other warring countries thru actions of their clandestine emissaries dispatched around the world. German agents used Glanders bacteria: (1) to attack horses and mules in the United States as they were being processed to ship to European battlefields for use by the American Army, (2) sheep in Romania waiting to be exported to Russia for food and (3) mules in British Mesopotamia. Germany utilized the incubation period of disease development as a weapon attribute; infected animals would become sick during transit, then arrive severely ill or dead. German agents also spread Cholera in Italy and Plague in Russia, as well as a wheat fungus at many locations in Europe. Evidence indicates the Germans attempted to use Anthrax against American livestock. The French were the other major nation using biological warfare in World War I, attempting to infect German livestock with Glanders.

Chemical agents have immediate physical effects and are used as tactical weapons to win battles compared to biological weapons, whose effects take days, if not weeks, to manifest, used as strategic weapons to affect the supplies and support elements of armies. Chemical weapons have predominantly physical impacts, while the disease appearance delays of biological weapons result in higher psychological fears: Have I been exposed? Am I infected? Will I get sick? Will I die? These questions were typical of those asked by biocontainment investigators and technicians at USAMRIID after laboratory accidents. Has my family been infected? Who around me could be infecting me? These would be additional questions arising from a bioterrorism attack on a civilian population. Biological weapons in World War I required direct contact between the microorganisms and their animal and human targets to bring about illness and death. We would see 20th century evolution of delivery mechanisms of biological agents, in which just preventing direct contact would not be sufficient to prevent bio attacks.


comments powered by Disqus