How to Kill

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
The idea of using biological weapons in North America is hardly new; in fact it was proposed hundreds of years ago. In 1777, when smallpox was widespread, a British major named Robert Donkin authored a book, Military Collections and Remarks, that included a footnote suggesting soldiers “dip arrows in matter of small pox, and twang them at the American rebels, in order to inoculate them; this would sooner disband these stubborn, ignorant, enthusiastic savages, than any other compulsive measures. Such is their dread and fear of that disorder!”

Soon after Donkin’s book was published, though, the passage was physically cut out of almost every copy, possibly at the order of a military superior, the printer, or the binder. (One of these expunged copies was part of a John Carter Brown Library exhibition, Smallpox in the Americas, this fall.)

But even in Donkin’s day, the suggestion to use a biological agent against a New World enemy was not original. Some historians believe the British had earlier sent blankets they knew to be infected with smallpox to Native Americans.

So when were biological weapons first used? Dennis Landis, curator of European books at the JCB, says some evidence suggests that ancient Greeks used disease as a military weapon and that Romans tried to catapult diseased animals into enemy camps.

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January / February 2003