A Brief History of Biological Warfare



War has been a subject of human interest as far as we can remember. To achieve victory at any cost, we have researched and developed new and inventive ways to destroy our enemies. Whether it be conventional, biological, chemical, nuclear, or radiological intervention, military research remains unceasing as time marches on. One particular category of innovation has been gaining extraordinarily prolific momentum under the global magnifying glass: Biological Warfare.women smoke gas masks 1920x1200 wallpaper_www.paperhi.com_58

Biological warfare has become one of the biggest threats to humanity secondary to the evolution of chemical warfare. The two share many similarities, but the key difference is that chemical warfare uses inorganic chemistry and nonliving toxins to dissolve, irritate, or liquefy its targets, while biological warfare uses weaponized viruses or organic chemistry to infect a population, human or nonhuman, as well as to be used as area denial weapons, preventing an enemy from effectively using industrial, agricultural, or residential land.

The reason for the surge in biological warfare research is due to the low cost of development for pathogens. Furthermore, the high lethality coupled with little to no structural damage makes this class of weapon very effective financially. For example, the FBI states that an anthrax culture can easily be controlled and released for a mere $2500, excluding the costs of lab equipment. Such an attack would leave all infrastructure and buildings intact, affecting only organisms, whether they be human, livestock, or agriculture. This makes it an even more attractive option as infrastructure remains in-tact and thus available for use after the attack. Surprisingly enough, the history of using such types of weapons actually dates back farther than one may think.

Since approximately 500 BCE, humans have utilized chemical warfare to achieve victory in combat (Riedel, 2004). Perhaps the earliest form of biological warfare would be the use of fungus spores as a poison for structures like walls and towers. Other instances include the implementation of catapults to launch diseased or decayed corpses within enemy strongholds, allowing pathogens to spread through the population. These primitive methods were used rather extensively, and may be attributed to the spread of the Black Death, one of the world’s first epidemics. WWI, or the “Great War” is also termed the “chemists war” due to deployment of war gases such as chlorine, phosgene, and mustard (Fitzgerald, 2008).

These practices continued until the colonial era, where biological warfare unintentionally caused the destruction of indigenous populations. Perhaps the most famous example is the British colonization of New England where blankets hosting European pathogens were traded with natives, whose unsuspecting immune systems fell victim to a cocktail of unusual diseases.

The key turning point in biological warfare would most certainly be developments in bacteriology in the early 1900s, most specifically germ theory, which simply states that diseases can be carried by microscopic organisms. This knowledge alone caused a slew of new developments in the field, such as early anthrax and glanders. These breakthroughs were discovered by the Imperial German government during World War I, although practical applications of their weaponized pathogens were never used. (Germ Theory)

The UK was the next world power to dabble in biological warfare with the onset of World War II. Winston Churchill would champion the research of weaponized tularemia, anthrax, and botulism. The government fully sponsored the production of these contagions, and when the United States entered the war, their influence put pressure on the British to create an Allied research program specifically for the development of bioweapons to be used on the Axis. As before, their plans to produce large quantities of lethal diseases were successful, although never practically implemented, as the war ended before the Allies could release the weapons they had worked so hard to manufacture.

On the other hand, during that same war, the Japanese had their own research program, called Unit 731, furthering biological warfare by conducting lethal human experiments. Unit 731 lacked the finesse and sophistication of the Allied research programs.Japan however, extensively used these weaponized agents. Biological weapons were used against Chinese soldiers and civilians, dropping ceramic bombs carrying fleas infected with the bubonic plague. The effectiveness of the attack was debatable, as the proliferation of the disease affected Japanese soldiers when the plague spread to their own forces. The biological warfare program of Unit 731 was mostly confined to attacks against China and Korea. Although plans to execute a biological act of terrorism in California did exist at one point, the surrender of Japan interrupted the operation.

Post-World War II, the UK and US continued their biological warfare programs as tensions rose between the Soviets and the United States. The Warsaw Pact called for an outright ban on biological weapons, and President Richard Nixon terminated all US biological weapons production. The only remaining biological warfare programs in the United States exist strictly to perform research for defensive measures. Eventually, the Biological and Toxin Weapons convention was proposed, debated, and signed by a number of nations including the United States and USSR. The terms of the convention outlawed production, stockpiling, development, and distribution of bioweapons, except in small amounts for defensive and peaceful research. The Soviets, however, ignored the treaty, continuing a massive operation of bioweapon production until its dissolution (Frischknecht1, 2003).

The Soviet bioweapon production project was known as Biopreparat. The operation consisted of a network of secret laboratories, each studying an isolated disease. Although Soviet biological warfare programs maintained their secrecy with brutal efficiency, unexplained outbreaks of lethal diseases brought attention to the West of their operations.

Modern biological warfare is viewed as irrational, ostensibly destructive, and morally reprehensible. The primary argument against bioweapons is the inability to control their spread, especially in the increasingly globalizing world. The possibility of a disease returning to its home nation is almost a certainty without costly precautions in place.

This is not to say that such precautions have not been theorized. Man-made microbes can be introduced to an infectious vector, such as a water supply, insect population, or avian population. The disease stays latent until another disease or chemical is introduced to the population that activates the symptoms of the previous disease, allowing a ‘remote detonation’ of the pathogen. The idea that such reality could already be in place is truly a mortifying one.

Conspiracies have run amok in modern society about the rise of biological warfare, with each new epidemic in the world, whether it be Ebola, E. Coli, or Zika virus, the possibility of a biological attack can never be completely ruled out. Whether or not these outbreaks are due to manipulation of a pathogen or a result of nature running its course, we may never know.

Advancements in the field are being made constantly, and the future is always in motion. The dangers of biological warfare are many, but new innovations are always underway in both defensive medicine and offensive pathogens. In the years to come, biological intervention will continue unveiling new methodologies and tactics for the use of biological organisms in medicine. Whether their applications are militaristic or not is up to us.


Written By,

Jack Mann

NetMaster & Web Developer



Fitzgerald, G. J. (2008). Chemical warfare and medical response during world war I. American Journal of Public Health, 98(4), 611-625. doi:0980611 [pii]

Frischknecht, F. (2003). The history of biological warfare. EMBO Reports, 4(Suppl 1), S47-52. doi:10.1038/sj.embor.embor849 [doi]

Riedel, S. (2004). Biological warfare and bioterrorism: A historical review. Proceedings (Baylor University.Medical Center), 17(4), 400-406. doi:bumc0017-0400 [pii]

Germ Theory


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