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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 routes.


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 agricultural disease.


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.


Owing 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. 1881;92:1378–1383.

4.  LaForce FM. Woolsorters’ disease in England. Bull N Y Acad Med. 1978;54:956–963.

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 )

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