Death in a Small Package: A Social History of Anthrax


Project Details


The goal of this project was to analyze historical knowledge about outbreaks of anthrax and its causative agent, Bacillus anthracis. The project explores a question not assessed in the literature: how did a disease that was commonly associated with animals and agriculture become a biological weapon?

Primary Findings:

Little-known episodes in the history of agriculture and occupational health were essential steps in the development of anthrax as a biological weapon. The project resulted in a book which provides historical lessons on how modern societies have responded to the threat of anthrax. The 1920s and 1930s saw the development of increasingly sophisticated weaponized formulations of B. anthracis, which the Japanese tested on captive Manchurian subjects in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Mid-century laboratory programs (e.g. Britain's Porton Down and Fort Detrick in the United States) focused on controlling anthrax and manipulating sporulation of B. anthracis so as to make it more useful as a weapon, while developing anti-anthrax vaccines. By the end of World War II, anthrax had become established as a modern biological weapon. From the 1950s through 1990s, vaccines against it were tested on factory workers who were still regularly exposed to anthrax and were later given to large numbers of military personnel and exposed civilians. Due to the disease's pastoral origins, agricultural and veterinary laboratories played key roles in manipulating the anthrax bacillus and promulgating strains that could be appropriated as weapons. Outbreaks of anthrax in Sverdlovsk, USSR (1979) and the 2001 U.S. postal attacks (the "anthrax letters") established the continuing danger of this agent's use as a biological weapon. The project concludes by analyzing the response to these outbreaks and discussing the problems with the current framework of microbial forensics as the main investigative tool for unexplained outbreaks of anthrax.


This project required the following methods: to collect archival materials and current materials about the use of Bacillus anthracis as a biological weapon within historical context; to sort and analyze these sources for data; and to analyze secondary sources (written by journalists and historians).  The project resulted in a book, Death in a Small Package, which follows the history of anthrax through time and across national boundaries, into factories, and through transnational networks of scientists and more elusive purveyors such as German saboteurs. Data include: US government archives of the WW I-era Mixed Claims Commission; British archives of scientific evidence on work at Porton Down and Gruinard Island; the details of two occupational anthrax outbreaks in the United States and Britain; published scientific articles; and newspaper and popular journal articles that expose public reactions to anthrax outbreaks. The project's approach also establishes a novel synthesis of cultural and biological analysis by demonstrating how anthrax's biological life cycle contributes to its sociocultural identity.


Project Period: