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A History of Biological Warfare from 300 B.C.E. to the Present

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A History of Biological Warfare from 300 B.C.E. to the Present

Thomas J. Johnson
Associate Professor of Respiratory Care and Health Sciences
Division Director, Respiratory Care, School of Health Professions

In Sophocles' play Philoctetes (404 B.C.E.), he describes the main character Philoctetes as wounded by a poisoned arrow on his way to the Trojan War. This is the stuff of legend and myth but maybe legend has its origins in reality. We get our English word for poison or toxin form the Greek word toxikon, which in turn is derived from the Greek word for arrow, toxon. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C.E. describes the Scythians archers of the Black Sea as employing poison-tipped arrows. According to Herodotus, Scythians used the decomposed bodies of several venomous adders indigenous to their region, mixed human blood and dung into sealed vessels and buried this mixture until it was sufficiently putrefied. This poison would certainly contain the bacteria of gangrene and tetanus (Clostridium perfringins and Clostridium tetani) while the venom would attack red blood cells, nervous system and could even induce respiratory paralysis. A Scythian archer had a range of over 1,600 feet and could launch about twenty arrows per minute.1

What is biological or bio-warfare? It is the use of biological pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins derived from living organisms to kill or incapacitate one's enemies. So, from poisoned arrows (Scythians, and later the Viet Cong guerrillas) to poisoned wells (Sparta, Persia, Rome and others) to bombs with deadly bacteria (Japan, United States, Soviet Union and Iraq), the intentional use of biowarfare has been around for centuries.

During the siege of the city-state of Athens by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War a devastating epidemic broke out which killed thousands of Athenians. The famous historian Thucydides, writing between 431 B.C. and 404 B.C. reported, "it was supposed that Sparta poisoned the wells."2 Even though Sparta won the Peloponnesian War, its reputation was destroyed. This may be the first reason that biowarfare agents have not been employed except in isolation and then by rogue states. Excellent propaganda then and now casts a shadow of guilt that can obscure the science. Interest in the Peloponnesian War persists until this day. A New York Times article (Sunday, August 18, 1996) suggested that the "plague of Athens" during the Peloponnesian War was Ebola.3 The article suggests that Athenian reinforcements from Africa carried the virus to the city-state. Even this is unlikely given the slow transportation from Africa and the incubation period of the Ebola virus. Of course the reinforcements may have brought a regimental pet, an African Green Monkey. The Green Monkey is the reservoir for the Marlburg virus, a close relative of the Ebola virus. It may never be known what the causative organism of the epidemic was.

Most people remember Hannibal as the great leader of the Cathagian Army. His employment of war elephants that crossed the Alps to attack Rome is an example of leadership, logistics and strategic generalship. Very few even know that he fought naval engagements. However in 190 B.C., he demonstrated both naval leadership and effective bio-warfare. In that year he won a great naval battle over Eumenes II of Pergomon using bio-warfare. Hannibal had earthen jars filled with venomous snakes, covered and taken on board his ships. When the enemy ships came within range, the earthen jars with the snakes were hurled at the enemy vessels where they broke discharging their terrifying occupants among the enemy sailors. The resulting chaos was effective and Hannibal won easily.4

One may debate whether or not even Hannibal's use of war elephants constituted bio-warfare. The Romans had horses that may have been made skittish by the size, smell and trumpeting noise of Hannibal's elephants. Hannibal may have heard how the Persian king Cyrus defeated the cavalry of King Croesus in 548 B.C. by placing a rank of camels in front of his infantry. Croesus's cavalry horses were panicked by the smell and sight of the unfamiliar animal.5

Later, in the 14th Century, the Tartar army besieging the city of Kaffa (present day Feodosia in the Ukraine) used a combination of psychological warfare and bio-warfare.6 The ubiquitous rat and an outbreak of the bubonic plague among their own troops worked for the Tartar army besieging Kaffa in 1346. Tartars catapulted bodies of plague victims over the walls of Kaffa in an attempt to initiate an epidemic upon the residents.5 The bubonic plague is primarily a disease of rats and other rodents. Only when they become very numerous in close contact with humans does the plague arise in man. The bites of the fleas (in this case the Oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopsis) transmit the disease to humans. Most probably, the fleas on the rats scavenging in the Tartar camp probably traveled on their hosts into the city Kaffa before the first Tartar died of the plague.

The defenders subsequently contracted the bubonic plague and abandoned the city to the Tartars. Merchants from Genoa had been trading in the Crimean port when the Tartars attacked. The surviving Genoese returned to Italy via their ships and most likely brought the plague to Europe. In October of 1347, the merchant ships docked in Genoa.7 The Genoese ships must have had stowaways -- rats. The rats with their fleas disembarked and proceeded to change the face of Europe forever.8

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