WASHINGTON - Although anthrax and other biological weapons seem like 21st-century threats, they have been tools of terror for ages.
Ancient armies, for instance, tainted water supplies of entire cities with herbs and fungus that gave people horrible diarrhea and hallucinations. One germ warfare assault in the 1300s apparently got out of hand, triggering an epidemic that may have wiped out a third of the population of Europe.
British troops in the French and Indian War launched a stealthy smallpox attack on Native Americans. During World War I, German agents ran an anthrax factory in Washington, D.C. World War II “anthrax bombs “left a whole island uninhabitable for almost 50 years.”
“The earliest reference to anthrax is found in the Fifth Plague,” said Dr. Philip S. Brachman, an anthrax expert at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
It took 10 calamities inflicted on the Egyptians to finally convince an obstinate Pharaoh to liberate the ancient Hebrews, according to the Bible. The plagues probably date to about 1300 B.C. They ranged from Nile River water turned blood-red and undrinkable to the one-night destruction of all the first-born of Egypt.
The Fifth Plague (Exodus 9:3) was an infectious disease that killed all the cattle in Egypt, while sparing the Hebrews' cattle. Dr. Brachman and other experts think the biblical account actually refers to a natural epidemic of anthrax. Such epidemics periodically decimated domestic animals in the ancient Middle East.
“From the description, it must have been anthrax,” he said.
Domestic animals (and wild animals such as deer and bison) get anthrax by eating spores of the bacteria while grazing on contaminated land, or from eating contaminated feed.
Animal anthrax still is an important problem in developing countries, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Humans can catch the disease from contact with infected animals, their meat, hide, or hair.
Medical historians see anthrax's fingerprints in manuscripts from the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hindus that contain descriptions of animal and human anthrax.
They think history's most serious anthrax outbreak was “Black Bane,” a terrible epidemic that swept Europe in the 1600s. It killed at least 60,000 people and many more domestic and wild animals.
People called it “Black Bane” because many cases involved the cutaneous, or skin, form of anthrax, which involves a blackish sore. Anthrax actually was named from a Greek word that refers to coal and charcoal.
Cutaneous anthrax can be quickly cured today with Cipro, penicillin, doxycycline, or other antibiotics. Like other infections in the pre-antibiotic era, however, it often killed.
Dr. Brachman said that epidemics of anthrax were common in Europe during the 1700s and 1800s, with up to 100,000 cases of human anthrax annually.
Medicine's first major advance again anthrax occurred in Germany as the United States celebrated its 100th birthday.
A physician named Robert Koch discovered how to grow bacteria on gelatin-like material in glass laboratory dishes, and developed rules to prove that specific bacteria caused specific diseases. In 1876, Koch identified the anthrax bacteria. That led in 1880 to development of a vaccine that was first used to immunize livestock, and later humans.
Other biological agents have roots as almost as ancient as anthrax.
Some of the first recorded biological terror attacks occurred in the 6th century B. C.
The ancient Assyrians (whose civilization began around 2400 B.C. in modern Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq), poisoned enemy wells with ergot, a fungus that can grow on wheat, rye, and other grains. It produces LSD-like chemicals that cause hallucinations and other symptoms.
In another 6th-century biological assault, the ancient Greeks, besieging a city called Krissa, poisoned its water supply with the herb “hellebore,” which causes unimaginably violent diarrhea.
During their sieges, ancient Roman soldiers threw decaying human corpses and carcasses of dead animals into their enemies' water supplies, and catapulted them over the walls of enemy towns.
A Tartar army in 1346 A.D. launched a biological assault that may have gotten out of control - big time.
While besieging a city in modern-day Crimea, soldiers hurled corpses of bubonic plague victims over the city walls. Fleas from the corpses infested people and rats in the city. Plague spread as people and rats escaped and fled.
Some experts believe it triggered the great epidemic of bubonic plague - the “Black Death” - that swept Europe, killing 25 million people.
In 1797, Napoleon tried to infect residents of a besieged city in Italy with malaria.
During the French and Indian War, the British suspected American Indians of siding with the French. In an “act of good will,” the British gave the Indians nice, warm blankets - straight from the beds of smallpox victims.
The resulting epidemic killed hundreds of Native Americans.
Dr. Anton Dilger, an agent of the Imperial German Government during World War I, grew anthrax and other bacteria in a corner of his Washington home. His henchmen on the docks in Baltimore used the anthrax to infect 3,000 horses and mules destined for the Allied forces in Europe. Many of the animals died, and hundreds of soldiers on the Western Front in Europe were infected.
In 1937, Japan began a biological warfare program that included anthrax, and later tested anthrax weapons in China. During World War II, Japan spread fleas infected with bubonic plague in a dozen Chinese cities.
The United States, Great Britain, and other countries developed anthrax weapons during World War II. The British military in 1942 began testing “anthrax bombs” on Gruinard Island, a 500-acre dot of land off the northwestern coast of Scotland. After the war, the project was abandoned.
However, the Gruinard experiments established the terrible environmental consequences of using anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction.
British scientists thought the anthrax spores would quickly die or blow away into the ocean. But the spores lived on. Huge numbers remained infectious year after year. Finally, in 1986, after critics labeled Gruinard “Anthrax Island,” the British government decided to clean up the mess.
Workers built an irrigation system over the entire test range. It saturated the ground with 280 tons of formaldehyde - “embalming fluid” - diluted in 2,000 tons of seawater. The fluid flowed 24 hours a day for more than a year. Gruinard finally was declared decontaminated in 1990. It remains uninhabited today.
Modern biological warfare programs have resulted in environmental contamination as well. An accident in 1979 at a Soviet biological warfare plant in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), released anthrax that killed at least 68 people who lived downwind.
A 1972 treaty, ratified by 143 countries, banned production, deployment, possession, and use of biological weapons. Analysts think that a dozen countries still may have clandestine biological weapons programs, including Iraq.
Iraq is believed to have hidden stockpiles of weapons-grade anthrax and other biological agents, plus artillery shells and other weapons to deliver the germs.