- Death in a Small Package: A Short History of Anthrax
In 2001, in the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, there were a series of anthrax attacks in the United States, when letters containing disease-causing spores were sent to various media organizations and politicians. Twenty-two people developed the disease and five died. These events gave anthrax a new and very high public and medical profile, and also prompted Susan Jones to begin the study that has now led to the publication of this innovative volume in Charles Rosenberg's biographies of the disease series. Of course, anthrax was already well known to historians of medicine, being the first model organism in bacteriological research and one of the earliest occupational conditions—Woolsorter's disease. However, Jones's study breaks new ground in linking the histories of four types of anthrax: agricultural, laboratory, industrial, and weaponized. The central theme is that of domestication, characterized as the development of closer, complex, and contradictory relations with humans, not in the sense used by William McNeill in Plagues and People of a linear track toward the disease becoming benign and controllable.
A great virtue of Jones's book is the dialogue between biology and history. There is detailed discussion of the changing material forms and properties of the anthrax bacillus, from its "natural" state as a sporadic but potentially devastating infection of livestock and certain occupational groups, through its transformations in the laboratories of Koch, Pasteur, and others, to its place as the central research object in biological warfare institutions across the world in the twentieth [End Page 521] century. Jones is a clear guide through these matters, as she is on the various forms that the disease can take, from an often mild, low-mortality infection of the skin, through to the serious, usually fatal lung disease.
The first three chapters deal respectively with agricultural, laboratory, and industrial anthrax. Framing these topics in turn in terms of the "infectivity and fear," "availability," and "transmission" highlights how different contexts and different actors produced different scientific and public ideas, practices, and meanings. These chapters also break new ground in taking the stories into the twenty-first century and highlight that anthrax remains a threat to farmers and workers, especially in poor countries. The final three chapters are devoted to weaponized anthrax and an in-depth account of biological warfare research and practice over the twentieth century. Here the book takes on more of the character of a research monograph, with significant new findings and analyses of the biological warfare research of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Jones reveals that biological weapons were developed and tested during the First World War and that a biological arms race on developing new means of defense and attack continued in the interwar period across all the major powers. There are revealing accounts of work at familiar sites, such as Fort Detrick, Porton Down, Sverdlovsk, and Unit 731, which are enriched by discussions of the circulation of strains of Bacillus anthracis and how researchers reflected upon the ethics of their work. Work grew cumulatively. The earliest focus was on attack, and over time many delivery systems were developed, targeted at both humans and animals. This research trajectory culminated in the creation of so-called weaponized anthrax, which was more virulent, with finer grades of spores, and was intended to produce inhalation anthrax, the most fatal form, which was responsible for all the deaths in the 2001 attacks. The second and directly related line of investigation was producing means of defense against attacks in the forms of vaccines and antibacterial drugs, along with technologies to disinfect and clear infected sites. Latterly, the new molecular technologies, as well as being deployed with attack and defense, have been used to improve methods of detection, from the screening of suspect packages, through to verification compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. Death in a Small Package beautifully...