Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Early History of Biological Warfare

     Biological (germ) warfare  is the use of the toxins or agents of living, infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi as a weapon to kill or incapacitate opponents (humans or animals).
Biological Warfare Symbol

     There is an overlap between biological warfare and chemical warfare as defined by the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention when the  (non-living) toxins produced by living organisms are used. Toxins, considered mid-spectrum agents, do not reproduce in their host (as would a bacterium or virus) and often  react more rapidly.
     The history of human 'civilization' is pock-marked with conflict and war and human beings have used nearly every option on the planet for new ways of destroying one another. Scorch and burn campaigns have leveled forests and farmland. Philosophy, religion, science and art have all been usurped by demagogues (see post: Demagogues Who Usurp Religious Belief) to fuel the quest for power and bloodshed. Nature itself has been weaponized and transformed into some of mankind's most formidable tools of war.
Scorch and Burn Warfare-Kuwait 1990

     The use of biological weapons is not a new concept and dates back to the ancient world. The Hittites of Asia Minor recognized the power of contagions as early as 1500 BCE, sending plague victims into enemy lands. Entire armies have have catapulted diseased corpses into besieged fortresses and poisoned enemy wells.
     Some historians believe that the ten biblical plagues of Egypt, called down by Moses against the Egyptians may have been a concentrated campaign of biological warfare rather than the acts of a vengeful god.
     The Assyrians used rye ergot to poison enemy wells in 600 BC, resulting in hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, seizures and cardiovascular problems leading to death in those who drank the water (see post: Drugs Used in Religion-The Old World).
The Ten Biblical Plagues of Egypt

     In 590 BC, Solon (Athenian law-maker and statesman) used the roots of the purgative herb hellebore (skunk cabbage),  to poison the water in an aqueduct leading from the Pleistrus River during the Siege of Krissa (Cirrha-the port of Delphi). In that same era and region, the Spartans used toxic smoke generated by burning wood dipped in a mixture of tar and sulfur during one of its wars with Athens.
     Chinese writings contain hundreds of recipes for the production of poisonous or irritating smokes for use in wars, and many reports of their actual use, dating back as far as 400 BC.

     They created and used an irritating 'five-league fog' made out of slow-burning gunpowder to which a variety of ingredient were added including the excrement of wolves.
     Writings of the Mohist sect (a Chinese philosophy developed by the followers of Mo Tzu (470 BC) in China tell of the use of ox-hide bellows to pump smoke from furnaces in which balls of mustard and other toxic vegetable matter were being burnt into tunnels to discourage the besieging army from digging. The use of a toxic cacodyl (arsenic trioxide) smoke is also mentioned in early Chinese manuscripts.
     As far back as 400 BC, Scythian archers shot infected arrows at their enemy, dipping the arrow tips in decomposing bodies or in blood mixed with manure. Ancient Persian, Greek, and Roman literature from quotes examples of dead animals used to contaminate wells and streams.
     Between 300 and 100 BC, the Romans used bees and hornets as weapons by catapulting them at their enemies. Some historians blame this practice for a shortage of hives during the waning years of the Roman Empire.
Mo Tzu

     In 190 BC, Hannibal, in the Battle of Eurymedon, won a naval victory over King Eumenes II of Pergamon by firing earthen vessels full of poisonous snakes into the enemy ships.
     Between 82 and 72 BC, the  Romans used toxic smoke against the Charakitanes in Spain causing pulmonary problems and blindness, leading to their defeat in 2 days.
From the 12th to the 17th century, the spread of disease by means of germs was still not understood and often thought to be due to the foul smell of rotting bodies (bad air or mal aria).
     During the later 17th century the impact of biological weapons was already obvious to military leaders, who usually found disease would often kill more men in the course of a campaign than would enemy fire.
Scythian Archers

     During the Battle of Tortona in the 12th century AD, Frederick I Barbarossa, German  Roman Emperor used the bodies of dead and decomposing soldiers to poison enemy wells. 
     During the Hundred Years War, in 1340, siege engines were used as platforms to fling putrefying animal carcasses into the besieged castle in Thun l'Eveque, northern France.
     In 1346, at the Siege of Kaffa (a Genoese-controlled seaport now called Feodosia in Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea), Khan Janibeg, the commanding officer of Tatar ordered plague-infected corpses to be hurled into the city.
     The Kaffa incident was described in 1349 by Gabriel de Mussis who noted that plague was transmitted to the citizens of Kaffa by the hurling of diseased cadavers into the besieged city and Italians fleeing from the city brought the plague into the Mediterranean seaports.

     These ships carrying plague-infected refugees (and rats) sailed to Constantinople, Genoa, Venice, and other Mediterranean seaports and are thought to have contributed to the second plague pandemic. The siege of Kaffa remains a powerful reminder of the terrible consequences when diseases are used as weapons.
     This technique of throwing the infected dead onto the enemy was used again  in 1422 when the bodies of dead soldiers were catapulted into the ranks of the enemy in the city of Karolstein, Bohemia. At the same time, 2,000 cartloads of excrement were piled up near the walls in the attempt to spread illness.
     In the year 1495, in Italy, near Naples, the Spanish provided their French enemies with wine tainted with the blood of lepers.
     During the conquest of the Incan Empire in Peru (1528), Pizarro was said to have purposefully given South American natives some clothing contaminated with smallpox. The British did the same, distributing blankets from smallpox patients to Native Americans in 1763.
Frederick I Barbarossa

     There was even an early 'Geneva Convention' against the use of bioweapons in 1645 when German and French forces agree to not use 'poisonous bullets'.
     During his siege of the city of Groningen (1672), the Bishop of Munster, Christoph Bernhard van Galen acquired the nickname 'Bombing Berend' ( 'Bommen Berend') because of his use of artillery. Among the explosive and incendiary devices he used were some filled with belladonna, intended to produce toxic fumes.
     In 1650, Polish artillery General Siemenowics fired spheres filled with the saliva of rabid dogs at his enemies.
     During this century, more was understood in medical science about disease processes. In Europe, experiments began into ways to prevent diseases.
     In the early 1700s, it became clear that biological weapons could kill indiscriminately and military strategists began to explore the possibilities of using preventive measures to protect their own troops.

     In the eighteenth century, the use of biological weapons was still crude and rudimentary. The same strategy as had been used at the Siege of Kaffa in 1346, using infected bodies as vehicles of disease, was carried by the Russians in 1710 when they catapulted plague-infested corpses, as laid siege against Swedish forces at Reval in Estonia.
     In 1785, Tunisian Moslem forces catapulted plague-infested clothing into the city during the siege of the city of La Calle, held by Christian forces.
     In 1797, Napoleon attempted to infect the inhabitants of Mantua, Italy with swamp fever (malaria), flooding he plains which surrounded the city.

     Little good can be said about the use of biological weapons but the threat of injury or death can often inspire new ideas and techniques (usually designed to save your own skin).
     In 1714, an article appeared in the (English) Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions which contained a description of a technique used by a physician in Smyrna (today's Izmir, Turkey), to confer some degree of protection from smallpox. The technique was called variolation and involved taking some of the liquid from a person with a mild case of smallpox and rubbing it into a small scratch made on the person to be protected.
Christoph Bernhard van Galen (Bombing Berend')

     This often resulted in a mild case of the disease but would then transfer immunity to further infection on recovery. The risk of death from variolation was estimated at 2 to 3%. This 'discovery' led to the Royal Experiment in which six condemned prisoners were variolated and promised full pardons if they survived. When the prisoners did, indeed, survive (and received their pardons), further experiments were done on charity children.

     The safety of the procedure thus being deemed adequately established (these 'controlled trials' would likely not be acceptable today). In 1801, Edward Jenner published Origin of the Vaccine Inoculation, describing the same effectiveness as variolation but without the higher risks using cowpox vaccination.
     Military strategists seized upon this idea, realizing that the commander of an army made up of individuals already exposed to smallpox, either naturally occurring or through variolation, would stand to gain if smallpox could be introduced to an opposing army which was not similarly protected.
Edward Jenner

     In addition, having access to persons afflicted with smallpox, the commander could thus acquire materials that could be used to expose an immunologically naive enemy to the ravages of the disease.
     In 1763, during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), British forces at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania under the direction of Sir Jeffrey Amherst gave two blankets and a handkerchief that had been used by smallpox victims to the Native Americans threatening the settlement in a plan to spread the disease. This is one of the first and the best-documented incident of biological warfare in the New World in the 18th century.

     In April, 1775, during the American Revolution, the British in Boston found themselves facing both the Continental Army and a smallpox epidemic. The British began to variolate their troops. However, they also began to variolate colonial civilians who were fleeing the city.
The French and Indian War

     General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, realized the infectious nature of the people leaving the city and delayed his attack on Boston until he felt the danger was past. In 1776, Washington saw his attack on Quebec fail, in large part because many of his own soldiers were affected by an outbreak of smallpox.

     Records show the use of biological warfare by confederate troops between 1860 and 1863. General W.T. Sherman's memoirs describe Confederates' poisoning of ponds by tossing carcasses of dead animals in them.  In 1863, confederate soldiers under General Johnson, retreating in Mississippi, placed animal carcasses in Union wells.
     In that same year, Dr. Luke Blackburn arranged for the sale of smallpox-contaminated clothing to unsuspecting Union officers. Although records indicate that there were numerous deaths from smallpox among Union troops during the Civil War.
General W.T. Sherman

     Dr. Blackburn also attempted to use the contaminated clothing scheme to spread yellow fever to Union troops (until 1900, no one knew that yellow fever could be transmitted only through mosquito bites).
     In 1863, the Union side officially banned this early use of biological weapons.

     Smoke, snakes and disease-ridden corpses - biological warfare has gradually grown more 'sophisticated' and precise since human beings decided that they needed to kill one another.
     In more modern times, the intention of creating pain, suffering and death on the enemy has not changed but the techniques to achieve these goals have proliferated and become more easily available.

     * The History of Biological Warfare: subject of research for the novel Vaccine -Amazon Kindle 

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