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Examples of Biological Warfare Through History

Updated on February 7, 2018

Biological warfare is the deliberate use of disease or naturally occurring death causing agents against enemy military or civilian targets.

Agents of biological warfare include, bacteria's, viruses, toxins/poisons, and fungi all of which have been in use in warfare since about 1500-1200 BC.

Ways of using biological materials are as varied as the agents themselves are and include but are not limited to:

Poisoned weapon tips (arrows or spear heads), Poisoned water supplies, Poisoning peoples food supplies such as poisoning sheep (introducing diseased animals into a healthy flock), Diseased bodies used as projectiles (usually thrown over city walls), Gifting of deliberately infected materials (ie: blankets)

Types of agents include but are not limited to: Anthrax, Tularemia, Smallpox, and Snake Venom to name a few.

1550-1200 BC

Hittite records from the BC's are the earliest known cases of using biological warfare. The Hittites would send sheep infected with Tularemia or "Rabbit Fever" into enemy flocks contaminating food supplies and causing epidemics.

Tularemia or "Rabbit Fever" is an infectious disease that causes high fever, ulcers, swelling of lymph nodes and pneumonia which can prove fatal.

While all of these are treatable today in ancient times any one of these symptoms alone would usually have proved to be fatal.

Even today with all our medical advances we cannot prevent "Rabbit Fever" as there is no vaccine available for it and while largely treatable today with modern medicines to treat the symptoms 7% of victims die generally of organ failure for unclear reasons.

First Sacred War (6th Century)

The First Sacred War between the Amphictyonic League of Delphi and the City of Kirrha is notable in history because of a poison agent used to contaminate the city's water supply. The agent used was a toxic plant called Hellebore. While not typically fatal it can in some people reduce breathing enough to be deadly, in the amounts used at Kirrha the toxin weakened the city to the point that they were not able to maintain the walls and the siege of Kirrha ended with most of the citizens being slaughtered and the city destroyed by the League.


Many of the plants that come under the Hellebore family are poisonous and despite pleasant sounding names like "winter rose", "Christmas rose" and "Lenten Rose" hellebores are not at all closely related to the rose family of plants.

Some symptoms of Hellebore poisoning include but are not limited to: gout, vomiting, diarrhea, vertigo, stupor, swelling of the tongue and throat, a decreased heart rate and may in some lead to collapse and death depending on age and overall health before the poisoning.

The Black Death 1348-1342

During the Middle Ages things were glum enough for the most part without including the use of germ warfare, however war doesn't stop because a terrible disease is starting to make the rounds. During the time known as the Black Death armies of the Mongol's and Tartars would catapult diseased bodies over the walls of cities they had besieged to contaminate and destroy from within. The attackers due to lack of science at the time thought that it was the stench of the dead that was deadly not realizing that it was the disease itself that was deadly and that many of them were themselves infected due to contact with the diseased bodies.

Projectiles as delivery systems

Throughout history projectiles have been a common theme in any militaries arsenal from rocks to arrows and bullets all have had a common theme in their creation and use, to wound or kill from a distance.

In various times throughout history it has also been standard to coat weapons with materials designed to cause disease or worsen the likelihood of infection setting into a wound that would have otherwise not have proven to be fatal.

Throughout history archers have dipped their arrows into poisonous substances such as venom, or coat them with blood they knew to be diseased, poisonous plant fluids and even animal or human feces in order to make non-fatal wounds fester and become infected. Even the English did this by sticking their arrows in the ground instead of drawing them from a quiver and though it may not have been their intent when the English longbow men stuck their arrows in the ground to make it faster to nock an arrow the arrowheads would be used covered in soil, which could cause infection due to a dirty wound which if not completely cleaned out could lead to loss of limb or death.

Native Americans

Any article on this topic would be remiss in not mentioning the Native populations of North and South America and the devastating result of Eurasian diseases on the indigenous populations of the New World.

Between 1613 and 1619 a large portion of Natives died of still unknown illnesses that started when new comers from the Old World started arriving the succeeding years in the 1700s there were upwards of tens of thousands to millions of deaths over time due to what became deliberate acts of contamination by conquerors who introduced diseases into the populations that Natives were particularly vulnerable to, one of the most devastating of these being smallpox.

Unlike the people of Europe who had long lived with these diseases and had developed a measure of protection against them, Native American populations had remained isolated for thousands of years which allowed the newly introduced diseases to run like wildfire throughout the New World.

Sometimes these infectious outbreaks were an accident, explorers not realizing at first that the natives wouldn't be safe from the diseases but after awhile when new comers realized just how weak natives were to the diseases the infections became deliberate such as on June 24, 1763 when the British army gave the gift of smallpox along with blankets, documents later reveled that William Trent the British military commander hoped the "Gift" would "convey the smallpox to the Indians".

Smallpox was not the only bane of the Natives however; in addition to smallpox the natives had little to no defense against other common aliments including measles, flu, chickenpox, and most other diseases common to Europe at the time.

Hannibal (190 BC)

Hannibal of Carthage is famed for causing some of the highest body counts in Rome's history of military losses and for trying to march on Rome through the Alps with elephants. Few people know that he also fought naval battles and employed biological weapons in the form of snake venom.

In the year 190 BC Hannibal was engaged in a naval battle with Eumenes II of Pergomon , displaying a talent for naval warfare just as with land warfare, during the battle when his ships drew close to their targets they threw pots filled with highly venomous snakes onto the decks of the enemy ships, when the pots broke many of the now angry and hyper-aggressive snakes attacked the enemy sailors and proceeded to bite many of them, even ones that were not bitten were mentally and emotionally badly affected by having very poisonous creatures suddenly all over the deck, the resulting chaos of which helped Hannibal to victory.

WWI Germany

Throughout WWI Germans reportedly were developing biological agents such as anthrax, glanders, cholera and a wheat fungus as weapons.

The Germans (allegedly) spread plague in St. Petersburg Russia, Cholera in Italy, infected mules and other livestock with glanders in Mesopotamia and attempted to infect the French Calvary horses with the same as well as tried to ship infected animals to allied countries such as the United States.

This program however was not a military one but an illegal civilian run program whose success was sporadic at best. Evidence suggests that Germany (the government and military) did not have a great interest in developing bio-weapons at this time and what little (official) research and development that was done, was done due to the belief by Germany that France and Russia were developing their own biological weapons programs.

WWII Japan

During WWII there existed in Manchuria a secret Japanese operation on the development of biological weapons. The research facility known as Unit 731 carried out inhuman experiments on human prisoners testing bio agents to chart the progression of symptoms from infection to death. Many died through the things they were infected with as well as from physical torture and execution once doctors were done studying them or if someone was too much trouble.

Unit 731 exposed more than 3000 victims to biological agents in their facility such as plague, anthrax, smallpox, syphilis and several other agents. This was done to observe the disease in an effort to develop more devastating versions for weapons. After death the victims still had no dignity restored to them as their remains were usually butchered up in extensive autopsies so that doctors could see what result their experiments had had on the victims insides to gain a greater understanding of what these disease were doing to the sufferers of them.

From 1932-1945 Unit 731 is believed to have caused tens of thousands of deaths and make Josef Mengele of Germany look nice in comparison.

WWII Poisoned Water Campaign

In addition to victims in their infamous labs, Japans Unit 731 conducted field tests of disease outbreaks by causing the outbreaks and are responsible for an estimated 250,000 deaths in Pingfang China alone with many more in other areas of China. With Chinese lives available for experimentation at no cost to the Japanese, Japan hoped to be the world leader in both biological and chemical warfare.

During WWII the Japanese poisoned more than 1000 wells in China to study outbreaks of Cholera and Typus after legally and then illegally attempting to get strains of Yellow Fever from the United States.

All told experts put deaths caused by Unit 731's experimentations as high as 580,000 victims within a 10 year period. Unit 731 in fact was guilty of most of the war crimes committed by Japan during the war though very few were ever tried let alone punished, in fact the United States shamefully protected them in order to get the doctors and their findings.

Yellow Rain (1975-1983)

Between 1975 and 1983 the United States alleges that Russia used biological agents in Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan. The toxin used is called T2 Toxin though the people in the countries affected called it "The Yellow Rain" is derived from fungi and is highly dangerous in the digestive tract.

The Soviet Government denies the use of biological weapons in those countries and says it must have been bees defecating (A LOT) that caused the "Yellow Rain". The United States never withdrew its charges against Russia and the UN's finding were "inconclusive" so no action has ever been taken.


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