History and Geography

In the past, outbreaks of anthrax (along with other epizootic diseases) among animals have undoubtedly helped to prepare the way for major outbreaks of epidemic disease in human beings. When anthrax has decimated herds of cattle or sheep, for example, human populations have faced starvation which, in turn, has lowered their ability to resist those epidemics. Anthrax has been known from antiquity, although until relatively recently it was not clearly separated from other diseases with similar manifestations. Possibly sudden death of animals at pasture, blamed by Aristotle (and subsequently by his followers over the centuries) on the shrewmouse and its "poisonous bite," may in many cases have been due to the peracute form of anthrax commonly referred to as splenic apoplexy.

Nineteenth-century authors speculated that the fifth and sixth plagues of the Egyptians as described in Exodus, which struck their herds and the Egyptians themselves, might have been anthrax. Evidence that this may have been the case centers on the Israelites, who were installed on sandy ground above the level of the Nile. They escaped the plagues, whereas those who did not lived in areas subject to flooding by the rising of the Nile, which could have provided perfect conditions for growth of the anthrax bacillus. Three decades before the birth of Christ, Virgil, in the Georgics, vividly described an animal plague that had much in common with anthrax, and warned against its transmission to people through contact with infected hides.

Through the centuries since Biblical times there are many records of animal plagues that almost certainly were anthrax but were often confused with a number of other complaints. By 1769, when identification of epidemic diseases of animals and human beings had become more precise, Jean Fournier in Dijon classified a number of different lesions as a single disease entity (anthrax), which he called charbon malin. More importantly, he recognized the transmission of the disease to people, and drew attention to cases occurring in workers who handled raw hair and wool, a theme developed in several accounts published in France during the following decade. These were all concerned with workers who had contracted anthrax while opening and sorting bales of horsehair imported from Russia. From the mid-nineteenth century, the disease became a problem in English facto-

ries as well, and subsequently in those of Scotland. At about the same time, the woolen industries began experiencing the problem as wool and hair from the East were introduced to the British trade. Wool-sorting, until then considered a particularly healthful occupation, suddenly began to show an alarming increase in the number of deaths and the extent of disease among the workers. The workers themselves suspected an association between the disease and the growing proportion of wool and hair imported from the East. By the late 1870s, concern in the Yorkshire factories was acute, but by then the new bacteriology had led to the identification of the cause of anthrax. J. H. Bell in Bradford had demonstrated that both woolsorters' disease and malignant pustule in humans derived from anthrax in animals.

Bell's work had been made possible by the work of Davaine and that by Robert Koch in the 1860s and 1870s. During the nineteenth century, the study of anthrax and the use of animal models in its pursuit had become an important part of the framework for the emergence of bacteriology as an academic discipline. In France, Eloy Barthélémy established the transmissibility of anthrax in feeding experiments with horses in 1823. From 1850 onward, study of the putative agent was pursued by workers in Germany and in France, beginning with the results obtained by Aloys Pollender, then by Pierre Rayer, and finally by Davaine who, during extensive work with guinea pigs in the 1860s, bestowed on it the name of bactéridie, which survived in the literature for a long time. From 1876 onward, the anthrax bacillus became a cornerstone of both Koch's theories and his development of pure culture methods; in the late 1870s, W. S. Greenfield at London's Brown Institution and H. Toussaint in Lyons published the first studies of acquired immunity against anthrax in animals, before Pasteur took over the field and was able to demonstrate, at Pouilly-le-Fort in 1881, that immunity could be produced through vaccination of sheep.

In Great Britain, industrially acquired anthrax became a notifiable disease in the Factory and Workshops Act of 1895; the incidence was reduced when the Anthrax Prevention Act of 1919 prohibited importation of certain types of potentially contaminated material. Since World War II, following the introduction of antibiotic therapy, the number of fatal human cases has been substantially reduced.

Lise Wilkinson

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