Alchemists Gone Bad: What You Should Know About Biological Warfare

By Rebecca Kreston | June 11, 2013 6:45 pm

Spears. Bows and arrows. Swords. Guns. Bombs. Drones. Microbes. The evolution of weapons and forms of warfare shadows our technological advancements, from the field of metallurgy to that of microbiology.

A 1942 American propaganda poster derived from President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech following the Pearl Harbor attacks. The poster, and other forms of PSAs that followed, are exemplary of the domestic sacrifices asked of Americans in the face of war – even with the possibility of nuclear and biological warfare after WWII. Image: Library of Congress. Click for source.

Biological warfare has existed for thousands of years: cheap and easy, it is often referred to as the “poor man’s nuclear bomb.” Few supplies are needed and the worst things come in small packages. Overt contamination is its crudest form – dumping bodies or feces in sources of drinking water – but deliberate exposure to infected bodies or contaminated objects has also been used to great effect.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians reportedly dumped the bodies of animals into the wells of their enemies (1). In 1346, the Mongols used catapults to fling the bodies of plague victims over city walls during the siege of Caffa and the ensuing disease among city residents may have contributed to one of the waves of Black Plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century as it traveled through Crimean ports (2). In 1763, the British army stationed at Fort Pitt gifted blankets to the Delaware Lenape Indians that had been used to cloak smallpox patients (3). Unsophisticated methods yet occasionally efficient.

The tremendous achievements we have made in the sciences and biotechnology over the course of the twentieth century have changed our approach to biological warfare, for better and worse. Antibiotics and vaccines are just two of the most prominent lifesaving products of our ongoing period of scientific exceptionalism and industrialization, but our advancements in microbiology and molecular technology have also paved the way for more sophisticated and nefarious methods of disrupting, threatening, and ending the lives of our enemies. We’ve come a long way from dumping bodies in rivers and wells and have moved on to chopping genes into bacteria and viruses so as to achieve a maximally lethal impact.

Japan initiated the first large military-scale into the grim business of manipulating and manufacturing very small things that would kill many, many people. In the 1930s, the Japanese army embarked upon what would become a formidably efficient bioweapons program, the first of its kind to make use of extensive human experimentation and vivisection (4). Prior to WWII, they tested at least 25 pathogens on civilians and prisoners that killed as many as 600 people (5). During the war, they poisoned Chinese water wells, dropped plague-infested fleas by planes and spread pestilence throughout the country that endured long after the war was over (6).

As a proactive, preventative measure against the Japanese’s microbiological advances, the US ventured into defensive biological weapons research in 1940 which eventually transformed into offensive weapons research as the war broke out in the Korean peninsula (7)(8).

In 1952, the US Civil Defense released a PSA to the American public, “What You Should Know About Biological Warfare,” educating the populace on the steps to take in the event of a biological attack from our cold war enemies. Clips of shadowy men wearing fedoras spraying aerosolized substances into air shafts and pouring unknown yet suspicious-looking liquids into rivers are interspersed with information on washing contaminated food and clothes, on the necessities of mass inoculation and on the voluntary provision of blood samples.

The PSA provides viewers with a series of tips to keep panic to a minimum in the aftermath of a biological event:

“Cooperate with the authorities … don’t give way to fear … don’t listen to scare-talk, rumors or myths … be careful what you eat and drink … always report sickness promptly.”

The US had good reason to worry about such an event.  By 1952, the nation was itself well on its way to manufacturing weapons-grade brucella, tularemia, Q fever, anthrax, and many more biological agents, and was denying accusations of waging biological warfare by China, North Korea and Cuba (9)(10). It wasn’t just the Soviets that the American populace needed to fear; army scientists were actively toying with genetic configurations in the lab to make bacteria and viruses more contagious, more environmentally hardy and, most importantly, more lethal.

This PSA represents one in a series of similar efforts on the part of the US civil defense agencies. Other blockbusters made in the ‘50s and ‘60s included “Survival Under Atomic Attack,” “Self-Preservation in An Atomic Attack,” “Medical Aspects of Nuclear Radiation,” “Duck and Cover,” Our Cities Must Fight,” “About Nuclear Fallout,” and the five-parter “Living in a Fallout Shelter.” The WWII-era import placed on preparedness, resilience and vigilance via education and awareness efforts shifted during the post-war years, and was reborn to draw the American public’s attention towards more malevolent, microscopic threats: nuclear and biological warfare.

This PSA and others like it were symptomatic of an era in which our methods of killing people had radically changed: from the sword to the bomb to the microbe. This video marks a turning point in the mid-20th century, at which we were able to capture and culture the organisms that had killed us for centuries and then, with hardly a beat between the two, turn them upon our fellow men in a refined and enhanced form.

Resources

Wow! PBS has a nice map showing the bioweapon program statuses of various countries.

An archive of US Civil defense films through the years.

A 1995 article by Nicholas Kristof, “Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity.”

References

1) J Poupard & L Miller (1992) History of biological warfare: catapults to capsomers. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 666: 9–20

2) M Wheelis (2002) Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa. Emerg Infect Dis. 8(9): 971-5

3) F Frischknecht (2003) The history of biological warfare. EMBO Rep. 4(Suppl 1): S47-S52

4) R Roffey et al. (2002) Biological warfare in a historical perspective. Clin MIcrobiol Infect. 8: 450-54

5) J McCurry (Feb 21 2011) Japan unearths site linked to human experiments. The Guardian [Online]. Accessed online June 10, 2013 here.

6) (Mar 18, 1995) The Crimes of Unit 731. The New York Times [Online]. Accessed online June 10, 2013 here.

7) F Frischknecht (2003) The history of biological warfare. EMBO Rep4(Suppl 1): S47-S52

8) GL Zubay (2005) Agents of Bioterrorism: Pathogens and Their Weaponization. (Google Books), Columbia University Press, p 132.

9) M Rolicka (1995) New studies disputing allegations of bacteriological warfare during the Korean War. Mil Med. 160(3): 97-100

10) RA Zilinskas. Cuban allegations of biological warfare by the United States: assessing the evidence. Crit Rev Microbiol. 25(3): 173-227

ResearchBlogging.orgFrischknecht, F. (2003). The history of biological warfare EMBO Reports, 4 (Supp1) DOI: 10.1038/sj.embor.embor849

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Body Horrors

Body Horrors looks at the history, anthropology and geography of infectious diseases and parasites.

About Rebecca Kreston

Rebecca Kreston is an infectious disease scholar trained in microbiology and epidemiology. She obtained her Biology degree from Reed College and her Masters of Science in Tropical Medicine from Tulane University. She's lived in tropical jungles, beaches and deserts around the world and has been exposed to several of the diseases that she studies. She currently lives in New Orleans, is a first year medical student and regularly battles insects of the Diptera, Siphonaptera and Hymenoptera orders.

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