History of Anthrax
Anthrax, is an animal disease caused by Bacillus anthracis
that occurs in domesticated and wild animals— including goats,
sheep, cattle, horses, and swine. Humans usually become infected by
contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products.
Infection occurs most commonly via the cutaneous (skin contact)
route and only very rarely via the respiratory or gastrointestinal
Anthrax has a long association with human history. The fifth and
sixth plagues described in Exodus may have been anthrax in
domesticated animals followed by cutaneous anthrax in humans. The
disease that Virgil described in his Georgics is clearly anthrax in
domestic and wild animals1. And during the 16th to the
18th centuries in Europe, anthrax was an economically important
Anthrax was intimately associated with the origins of microbiology
and immunology, being the first disease for which a microbial origin
was definitively established, in 1876, by Robert Koch2.
It also was the first disease for which an effective live bacterial
vaccine was developed, in 1881, by Louis Pasteur3. During
the latter half of the 19th century, a previously unrecognized form
of anthrax appeared for the first time, namely, inhalational anthrax4.
This occurred among wool sorters in England, due to the generation
of infectious aerosols of anthrax spores under industrial
conditions, from the processing of contaminated goat hair and alpaca
wool. It probably represents the first described occupational
respiratory infectious disease.
to the infectiousness of anthrax spores by the respiratory route and
the high mortality of inhalational anthrax, the military’s concern
with anthrax is with its potential use as a biological weapon. This
concern was heightened by the revelation that the largest epidemic
of inhalational anthrax in recent history occurred in
Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1979. The epidemic occurred after
anthrax spores were accidently released from a military research
facility located upwind from where the cases occurred. 5'6
1. Dirckx JH. Virgil on anthrax. Am J Dermatopathol. 1981;3:191–195.
2. Koch R. Die Aetiologie der Milzbrand-Krankheit, begründet auf die
Entwicklungsgeschichte des Bacillus anthracis [in German]. Beiträge zur Biologie
der Pflanzen. 1876;2:277–310.
3. Pasteur, Chamberland, Roux. Compte rendu sommaire des expériences
faites à Pouilly-le-Fort, près Melun, sur la vaccination charbonneuse [in
French]. Comptes Rendus des séances De L’Académie des Sciences.
4. LaForce FM. Woolsorters’ disease in England. Bull N Y Acad Med.
5. Abramova FA, Grinberg LM, Yampolskaya OV, Walker DH. Pathology of
inhalational anthrax in 42 cases from the Sverdlovsk outbreak of 1979. Proc Natl
Acad Sci U S A. 1993;90:2291–2294.
6. Walker DH, Yampolska L, Grinberg LM. Death at Sverdlovsk: What have
we learned? Am J Pathol. 1994;144: 1135–1141.
(The proceeding information was derived from the Virtual Naval Hospital web
site, www.vnh.org )