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Biological and Chemical Terror History

Lessons Learned?
WebMD Feature

Chemical and biological warfare isn't new. Even in ancient times, war wasn't all swords and longbows. Some examples:

  • 1000 BC. Arsenic smoke used by the Chinese.
  • 600 BC. During a siege of the city, Solon of Athens poisoned the drinking water of Kirrha.
  • 184 BC: In a sea battle, Hannibal of Carthage hurled clay pots full of vipers onto the decks of enemy ships.
  • Dating back to at least the 1100s, there are many examples of hurling the bodies of plague or smallpox victims over city walls.
  • 1400s: Leonardo da Vinci proposed an arsenic-based anti-ship weapon.
  • 1495: The Spanish offered wine spiked with the blood of leprosy patients to the French near Naples.
  • 1650: Polish artillery general Siemenowics fired spheres filled with the saliva of rabid dogs at his enemies.

Lessons learned: Even crude chemical and biological weapons create fear and panic.

U.S. History Before World War I

Biological and chemical warfare is no stranger to American soil. Examples include:

  • In 1763, British officers came up with a plan to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania.
  • During the Civil War, future Kentucky governor Luke Blackburn, MD, sold Union troops clothing contaminated with smallpox and yellow fever.
  • Near the end of the Civil War, Grant's army was stalled outside Richmond during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. There was a plan -- not acted upon -- to attack the Confederate trenches with a cloud of hydrochloric and sulfuric acids.

Lessons learned: Not all bioterror comes from overseas.

World War I

Unrestricted use of chemical agents caused 1 million of the 26 million casualties suffered by all sides in WWI. It started with the French and British use of tear gas, but soon escalated to more toxic poisons. Some deadly landmarks:

  • October 1914: German artillery fire 3,000 shells filled with dianisidine chlorosulfate, a lung irritant, at British troops. The shells contained too much TNT and apparently destroyed the chemical.
  • In late 1914, German scientist Fritz Haber came up with the idea of creating a cloud of poison gas by using thousands of cylinders filled with chlorine. Deployed in April 1915 during the battle for Ypres, France, the attack might have broken the Allied lines if German troops understood how to follow up the gas attack.
  • By 1915, Allied troops made their own chorine gas attacks. It led to a race for more and more toxic chemicals. Germany came up with diphosgene gas; the French tried cyanide gas.
  • In July 1917, Germany introduced mustard gas, which burned the skin as well as the lungs.
  • Biological warfare was generally less successful. Most of these efforts focused on infecting enemy livestock with anthrax or glanders.

Lessons learned: The horror of chemical weapons left the world reeling. The Geneva Convention made an attempt to severely limit their future use in warfare.

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