TV newscasts abound with reports about them. American society quakes in fear of them. Sales of duct tape and plastic sheeting spiked at the mere threat of them. And military forces ousted the government of Iraq over talk that the nation secretly harbored them.
They are biological toxins. But to hear neurologist Shri Mishra tell it, their use as a tool of terror and death is nothing new: It is as old as warfare itself.
“Biotoxins have been used in war and terrorism since the beginning of civilization,” said Mishra, professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
“The ancient Indian literature has described using snake venom and poisonous arrows against enemies,” Mishra added. “History holds many of these accounts.”
Mishra recently presented a historical tour and description of biological weapons at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Honolulu.
As outgoing chair for the McHenry award subcommittee of the academy’s history section, and now chair for the American Neurological Association’s history section, Mishra has a unique perspective on lessons from the past.
One area involves poisons, part of a deadly heritage.
As far back as 1000 B.C., Chinese fighters poisoned drinking water with arsenic, Mishra said. The Assyrians in 600 B.C. poisoned their enemies’ water as well, but with rye ergot – a fungus growing on grains that can cause gangrene, convulsions and eventually death.
At about the same time, among the ancient Greeks, Solon of Athens is said to have used hellebore roots – a purgative – to poison an aqueduct during the siege of Cirrha. And accounts indicate that the Carthaginians slipped mandrake root into the wine of their enemies.
The ancients also used noxious smoke to subdue their foes, said Mishra.
The Chinese are alleged to have pumped arsenic fumes with bellows toward their opponents. Some even used animals as weapons: Hannibal’s army, for example, hurled pots of snakes onto the ships of King Eumenes of Pergamus.
And though diseases were not well-understood, ancient battlers did recognize ways to encourage illness. Scythian archers dipped arrows in blood and manure or in decomposing bodies, for example.
Others dropped dead bodies into water wells or catapulted decomposing, plague-infected corpses over battlements.
According to memoirs, the Tartar army pelted a Genoese outpost at Kaffa in the Ukraine with infected bodies; fleeing Italians took the plague back with them to the Mediterranean area, setting off the Black Death.
“Napoleon tried to force the surrender of Mantua [in Italy] by infecting their people with swamp fever, too,” said Mishra. “And in North America, when the British were facing Indians in the Pontiac Rebellion in 1763, the soldiers at Fort Pitt gave Indians blankets infected with smallpox.”
Through the modern era, biotoxins fell under the umbrella of the nation-state.
By 1933, infamous Japanese army doctor Shiro Ishii had set up a bioweapons lab in Manchuria and was testing biological bombs and agents on Chinese prisoners.
Japanese scientists disseminated typhus, cholera and plague through Chinese villages.
And as World War II was rumbling to a start, Ishii was looking at using simple vectors such as the common flea to introduce disease into enemy populations.
“At this point, everybody in the world was getting into the act with biological and chemical weapons,” Mishra said. “It was part of war. The Japanese were doing it, the Germans were doing it.”
So the United States set up its own bio-weapon research facilities, building a chamber dubbed the “Eight Ball” at Fort Dietrich, Maryland, to test pathogen dispersal.
American scientists created labs to develop botulinum toxin, anthrax spores, brucellosis and psittacosis. They also spread a benign bacteria called bacillus globigii in various towns to simulate covert biological attacks.
“But by 1972, all biological warfare activity in the country was stopped by the executive order of Richard Nixon,” Mishra said.
Still, technologies exist.
“It is believed that the information on weaponized anthrax was given by the U.S. to Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war,” he said.
With such a destructive world history behind us, Mishra finds the future worrisome. Materials once tightly held by nations may fall into the hands of small groups and be used on a piecemeal basis in civilian populations, much as it was many years ago.
Recent findings in Europe of the poison ricin, made from castor beans, may be just the beginning.
“My prediction is that the use of biological toxins in war and terrorism will grow if not checked, particularly with terrorist organizations,” Mishra said.
“World organizations including the United Nations, the World Health Organization and civilized nations must work together to stop widespread proliferation.”