Flying Sheep A short history of biological warfare The essay “Flying Sheep – A Short History of Biological Warfare” is a little off of the Phi Theta Kappa’s 2002 – 2004 Honors Study Topic of “Dimensions and Directions of Health – Choices in the Maze” but, it does take a look at what happens when the lines between patriotism, the need to win, fear, desperation, medical research and ethics become blurred.
“Does anyone know when biological warfare was first used?” These were the first words asked by my instructor during the Biological Agents part of a British Army Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Instructors course that I attended in the mid 1980’s. It just so happened that I’m a bit of a history buff and knew that biological agents have been used for a long, long time.
The fact is that the use of biological agents is almost as old as organized warfare itself. One of the earliest uses of biological weapons occurred in the 6th century BC when the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot. Ergot is a parasitic fungus that produces hallucinations and a narrowing of the blood vessels which can lead to the development of gangrene in the extremities. Around the same time, Solon of Athens, during the siege of Krissa poisoned the city’s water supply with hellebore (skunk cabbage). Hellebore is a very effective purgative, can cause heart attacks and is narcotic. In 400 BC, the central Asian Scythian archers used arrows dipped in blood, manure or decomposing bodies.
In 1155, at the battle of Tortona in Italy, Barbarossa poisoned the enemy’s water supply by dumping bodies into it.
In 1346 -1347, plague broke out in the Muslim Tartar army led by De Mussis, during its siege of Caffa, Crimea, now Feodosia, in Ukraine. The Tartars catapulted the bodies of bubonic plague victims over the walls of the city, which was being defended by Genoese sailors. They surrendered and fled to Italy, which is the possible cause of the plague epidemic that swept across medieval Europe, killing 25 million. It’s hard to imagine 25 million, so here’s what happened in my home city of Bristol, England. In 1348 the Black Death, Bubonic Plague, arrived. While I can find no figures for the number of fatalities, a large proportion of the population must have died as 'the living could scarce bury the dead' and grass was left to grow in Broad and High Streets. Geoffrey le Baker, a contemporary cleric of Oxford, England described the spread of the plague;
"And at first it carried off almost all the inhabitants of the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland and from there it raged so dreadfully through Devon and Somerset as far as Bristol and then men of Gloucester refused those of Bristol entrance to their country, everyone thinking that the breath of those who lived amongst people who died of the plague was infectious. But at last it attacked Gloucester, yea and Oxford and London, and finally the whole of England so violently that scarce one in ten of either sex was left alive. As the graveyards did not suffice, fields were chosen for the burial of the dead . . . A countless number of common people and a host of monks and nuns and clerics as well, known to God alone, passed away. It was the young and strong that the plague chiefly attacked . . . This great pestilence, which began at Bristol on 15th August and in London about 29th September, raged for a whole year in England so terribly that it cleared many country villages entirely of every human being". Around a third of the population of England died of plague that year. Catapulting dead and diseased animals into a besieged city seems to be a common trait during European medieval warfare, and gives rise to the title of this essay.
In 1422, at the battle of Karlstejn, the invading Lithuanians led by Coribut threw the bodies of plague-stricken soldiers, dead cows and 2000 cartloads of excrement into the ranks of enemy troops. In 1485 the Spanish supplied their French enemies near Naples with wine laced with blood from lepers. Early in the sixteenth century, the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro reportedly gave smallpox contaminated clothing to South American natives. Later in the same century Polish General Siemenowics was putting saliva from rabid dogs into hollow artillery spheres. In 1710, Russians catapulted plague-infected corpses into Reval, Estonia, held by their Swedish enemies. In 1763, during the French and Indian War, British Colonel Henry Bouquet gave smallpox infected blankets, with devastating effect, to the Indians at Fort Pitt, in western Pennsylvania. Tunisians were besieging La Calle in 1785, and threw plague infested clothing into the city. While besieging Mantua, Italy in 1797, Napoleon attempted to infect the inhabitants with swamp fever.
During the American Civil War, Dr. Luke Blackburn, the future governor of Kentucky, attempted to infect clothing with smallpox and yellow fever which he then sold to Union troops. General Johnson, retreating through Mississippi with the Confederates in 1863, tried to poison water supplies by dumping dead animals into the wells and ponds that they passed. The same year, U.S. Army General Order No. 100 stated that "The use of poison in any manner, be it to poison wells, or food, or arms, is wholly excluded from modern warfare." World War I saw the start of the scientific study and development of biological weapons. In 1915, Dr. Anton Dilger and his brother Carl started a microbiology facility in Washington D.C. The Dilgers produced large quantities of anthrax and glanders (Burkholderia mallei ) bacteria. During their transportation, German agents inoculated 3,000 head of horses, mules, and cattle that were destined for the Allied Forces in Europe, as a result, several hundred military personnel were reportedly secondarily infected. The United States also set about testing ricin, a substance extracted from Castor Beans that blocks the production of essential proteins. One of the most toxic substances known to man, it has some particularly nasty symptoms such as severe internal hemorrhaging and multiple organ failure. There is no known antidote. Biological warfare wasn’t very widespread during the fighting itself; the attacks that were carried out were mostly against livestock using anthrax or glanders. Chemical weapons, such as Chlorine, Mustard Gas and Phosgene however, were used in vast quantities, so much so that it “ran like rain water in the gutters of the streets.” (A Higher Form of Killing, p31)
On 17th June 1925, thirty-eight nations signed the Geneva Protocol that tried to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons. Like trying to put smoke back into a bottle, it was already too late.
In 1931, Japanese military officials unsuccessfully attempted to poison members of the League of Nations’ Lytton Commission by lacing fruit with cholera bacteria. Japanese Major, later General, Shiro Ishii started experimenting with biological agents at Harbin Military Hospital in Manchuria in 1935. The same year five Russians were captured in the Kwangtung region of China carrying glass flasks containing dysentery, cholera and anthrax organisms. It was later claimed that around 6,000 Japanese soldiers in the Shangai area died of cholera disseminated by the Russians. In 1937, the research was moved to Pingfan, forty miles south of Harbin. This establishment was to become known as Unit 731. It was here that a wide range of biological agents were produced and tested, these included anthrax, botulism, brucellosis, cholera, encephalitis, gangrene, glanders, plague, salmonella, smallpox, tetanus, tuberculosis, tularemia, typhoid and typhus. Prisoners were fed food contaminated with botulism, others were injected with brucellosis, others were tethered to stakes and bombs containing gangrene were exploded near them. It is thought that around 3,000 Chinese prisoners died as a result of the testing carried out at this facility. In 1939, the Japanese poisoned Soviet water sources with typhoid bacteria at the former Mongolian border. The plague epidemics that struck China and Manchuria between 1940 and 1942 were attributed to the application of research done at Unit 731.
On 12th February 1934 a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff gave the go-ahead to start Britain’s research into the use of biological weapons. By March 1937 experiments had been carried out using plague, anthrax and foot and mouth disease. In 1940, research was moved to Porton Down, by the end of 1942 during Operation Vegetarian, the facility had produced 5 million cattle cakes laced with anthrax. 1942 also saw the Porton Down anthrax experiment on Gruinard Island, off the north-west of Scotland. In the summer of that year around 30 sheep were taken to the island and tethered. A 25lb anthrax bomb was exploded amongst them – they all died. More tests were done throughout 1942 and 1943. Gruinard was thought far enough off the coast to prevent contamination of the mainland, this was wrong, and several anthrax cases were reported along the coast from the island. Shortly after these reports all testing on the island stopped. The island was still contaminated by anthrax spores until 1986 when a commercial company was paid to decontaminate the 520-acre island by removing and incinerating tons of topsoil. The island’s vegetation was killed with herbicide then it was trenched with 280 tonnes of formaldehyde diluted in 2,000 tonnes of seawater. Although now officially listed as safe, scientific opinion seems to be divided as to whether all the spores were destroyed.
The Effects of Anthrax
In 1941 the Russians developed tularemia as a biological weapon. It appears to have been used in 1942, just before the battle of Stalingrad when thousands of German and Soviet soldiers developed pneumonic tularemia.
On 27th May, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi Secret service, was attacked by Czech underground as he was driving through Prague. Heydrich suffered relatively minor grenade wounds, but died a week later. The grenades used were supplied to the underground by Porton Down and were filled with botulism organisms.
America was a relative latecomer and didn’t start research into biological weapons until 1942 at Camp, now Fort, Detrick in Maryland. It didn’t take long to catch up, especially as General Shiro Ishii from Unit 731 was given immunity from war crimes and brought his specimens with him. This use of foreign expertise still continues; in 1992, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, people like Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, now known as Ken Alibek, and who was Deputy Chief of Soviet biological weapons research, went to work for the United States.
America built several plants for the large-scale production of biological weapons. In the 1940’s, one was the Vigo plant, just outside Terre Haute, Indiana. Around 500 people worked at the $8 million plant which used 300,000 lbs of glucose or cerelose, 625,000lbs of corn steep liquor, 1 million lbs of yeast, 50,000 lbs of casein, 20,000 lbs of peptone and 190,000 lbs of phosphates a month. This was all used to produce over 500,000 anthrax or 250,000 botulinus bombs a month. The plant was ready to go into full scale production in early 1945, but with the end of the war it was leased for the production of antibiotics, it could have been converted back into war production inside of three months.
America also tested the dispersion effects of a biological agent on its civilian population. In 1950, Serratia marcescens was released over San Francisco. In 1966, Bacillus subtilis, was introduced into a subway station in New York City. The bacteria soon spread throughout the entire system.
In 1969, President Nixon issued an Executive Order stopping all offensive U.S. biological weapons research. Between May 1971 and May 1972, all U.S. stockpiles of biological agents and munitions were supposed to be destroyed. They weren’t. In 1975 a Senate hearing into why the CIA had disobeyed the Executive Order was shown a poison dart gun developed by them.
A CIA Poison Dart Gun
In 1972, many countries signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, commonly called the Biological Weapons Convention. This treaty prohibits the stockpiling of biological agents for offensive military purposes, and also forbids research into such offensive employment of biological agents. Unfortunately, such a cheap, destructive and unpredictable weapon just couldn’t be forgotten about and many countries didn’t just continue research, they used them.
In the late 1970’s reports of “Yellow Rain” were coming out of Afghanistan, Laos and Kampuchea. Soviet helicopters were reported spraying colored aerosols over these countries. Shortly after, people and animals became ill and disorientated and some died. The cause was supposed to have been tricothecene mycotoxins (T-2 toxins). Around this time, smallpox had finally been eradicated as a naturally occurring disease in the world. The only stocks of it, anywhere in the world, were supposed to have been kept in laboratories in the U.S. in Atlanta and in Moscow, Russia. It now appears that these aren’t the only places it is stored. As it is no longer found among civilian populations, natural immunity to it is now practically zero, this makes it very tempting to those who want to develop biological weapons.
In 1978, a Bulgarian exile named Georgi Markov was waiting at a bus stop in London, England when he felt a sharp pain in the calf of his leg. Someone had scratched him with the end of what appeared to be an umbrella. Several days later he died. A tiny pellet extracted from his body was found to have been deliberately filled with ricin. It later emerged that the Bulgarian government, using Soviet supplied technology, had assassinated him.
A platinum pellet similar to the one that killed Georgi Markov
In late April 1979, 66 people died and 11 recovered from an accidental release of anthrax from Military Compound 19, a Soviet microbiology facility near Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, in the former Soviet Union.
By the 1980’s biological weapons weren’t just confined to government controlled facilities. In 1980 and 1989, houses in Paris, France were searched and found to contain home laboratories making botulinum toxin. The first was a Red Army Faction house the other was used by the German Bader Mainhof gang. In 1983 two brothers in the U.S. were arrested for possession of an once of ricin. During September 1984, followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh contaminated salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon with Salmonella Typhimurium. Between 750 and 900 cases of salmonellosis were determined to be caused by the salad bar contamination. It was later discovered that the Rajneeshpuram cult wanted to influence the local county commissioners’ election, so as to form their own township. The organism was ordered through the mail from the U.S. company, American Type Culture Collection (ATCC).
On 2nd August 1991 Iraq admitted to the United Nations that it had carried out research into anthrax, botulism, ricin and other biological weapons but that stockpiles had been destroyed.
In 1995, two men belonging to the Minnesota Patriots Council were the first to be convicted under the Biological Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, for production of ricin. They had planned to poison federal agents by placing it on doorknobs.
In 1996, twelve workers at a medical center in Texas contracted a rare form of dysentery after eating donuts at the center's coffee room on October 12th. They experienced diarrhea, vomiting, headache and fever. Samples taken from them showed they had been poisoned by the center’s own stock of bacteria. No arrests were made, but it was clearly an intentional act.
On November 5, 1999, James Kenneth Gluck was arrested for threatening to poison two Colorado judges with ricin. The raw materials for making the toxin are found in his Tampa home.
After the attack on the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001, several cases of anthrax were reported along America’s east coast. The strain of anthrax used reportedly came from a U.S. Army research facility. Although the number of deaths was thankfully small, the authorities received thousands of calls to investigate things such as piles spilt of baby milk powder and cement dust.
Research continues still, this is an extract from a U.S. Defense Special Weapons Agency announcement of 18th November 1996.
“The program shall consist of a DoD focused interdisciplinary effort covering such diverse disciplines as toxicology, medicine, epidemiology, environmental health sciences, cell and molecular biology, chemistry, ecology, and information sciences. The DoD is concerned about environmental pollutants that have been or may be produced as the result of defense related operations. These pollutants may be produced during the research, development, testing, production, operation, and maintenance of military equipment and weapon systems. The effects of these pollutants on DoD personnel, civilian population, the environment, and the wildlife are of concern.”
This was found on the Federal Business Opportunities (FedBizOpps) page at http://www.fbodaily.com/cbd/archive/1996/11(November)/18-Nov-1996/Asol001.htm
Biological weapons are cheap and relatively easy to make. Not only is the threat from despotic national leaders but from anyone who has the access to these agents and the wherewithal to disseminate them. Although many of these agents have been genetically altered or grown specifically for their toxicity they are still, for the most part, natural occurring microorganisms. One of the problems for a country that has been attacked with these weapons is to actually decide whether it has been attacked, or whether the sudden appearance of an illness is a natural phenomenon.
Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons also introduce a paradox. Those countries who claim their only interest in these weapons is defensive are the same countries that appear to be doing the most research in developing even more powerful weapons. The rationale is that in order to defend yourself you’ve got to know what might be used against you. What also appears to happen is that the technology and techniques used can’t be kept secret and will eventually be leaked to countries whose main interest in it isn’t confined to defense.
“Weapons of Mass Destruction” is a modern phrase, made for our sanitized, sound-bite driven world. Nuclear, biological and chemical warfare is its proper name. These are multi-edged weapons, not only are they dependant on the weather, wind direction and so on, but once used, who knows what is going to be used in retaliation. Make no mistake; although these weapons kill a great many people, the intended affect is far more than that. To put it bluntly, a dead person can be left where they are; they are past further help or hurt. Someone suffering from the effects from these weapons needs help very quickly if they are not to die or suffer life long consequences. This uses valuable human and material resources, as well as having a demoralizing effect. Of the three, biological weapons are the most insidious and the hardest to defend against.
There are three scenarios in which a mass attack using any of these “weapons of mass destruction” could be considered. These are when a country is winning and wants to shorten a war. This has already happened; in 1945 the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The second scenario is when a war has been fought to a standstill and the use of these weapons may break the deadlock. Again, this has already happened. The original use of chemical weapons during World War I was designed to do this. The third scenario is when a country is losing and decides either to try and turn a war in its favor or at least cause as many enemy casualties as it can.
Sources and Resources A Brief History of Biological / Chemical Warfare - http://www.americaonalert.com/
A Brief History of Porton Down - http://www.mod.uk/issues/portondownvolunteers/history.htm
A Higher Form of Killing – Robert Harris & Jeremy Paxman, Hill & Wang, NY
A History of Bristol - http://members.lycos.co.uk/brisray/bristol/bhist3.htm
An Outbreak of Shigella Dysenteriae - http://www.bioterrorism.slu.edu/case_studies/jama.pdf
Arizona Department of Health Services - http://www.hs.state.az.us/phs/edc/edrp/es/bthistor2.htm
Biological and Chemical Weapons - http://srpub.phrma.org/weapons.html