Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Object 9: Anthrax Finger

What: Public Lecture, on History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects 

When: Tuesday 22nd November, 6:15 – 7:15pm

Where: Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, Michael Sadler Building

death-in-the-woolpack-croppedJoin Dr Jamie Stark and Richard Bellis for ‘Death in 24 hours’: the making of modern anthrax.’ In the 19th century anthrax became global disease with a very local connection. The wool factories of Bradford in the 1850s received exotic animal fleeces for processing from around the world. These brought with them a new illness – anthrax – that was known locally as ‘woolsorter’s disease’. Over time Bradford became the testing ground for new techniques in bacteriology and public health as doctors, employers and workers tried to unravel this mysterious and frightening disease. By the early 20th century, anthrax was known in France as la maladie de Bradford and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand the town had become synonymous with this most deadly of diseases. Assuming no prior knowledge, Jamie and Richard will use specimens from the pathology collection to explore Bradford’s key role in the identification and management of anthrax, all are welcome.

This lecture runs concurrently with the Being Human Festival. See the website for other events relating to science and medicine around the university.

Tea and coffee will be provided from 6pm outside the lecture theatre.

Lecture Video:


Below is a blog post about the lecture written by PhD Student Alex Aylward

HPS in 20 Objects, Lecture 9: An Anthrax Finger

The ninth instalment of the HPS in 20 objects lecture series centred upon easily the most gruesome artefact yet: a dismembered finger of an Anthrax victim, preserved since 1914 in formaldehyde. Dr Jamie Stark and PhD student Richard Bellis were our expert tour guides through time and across space, as we learned―through the lens of this grisly digit―about: the history of a disease (or, indeed, diseases); the birth of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical specimens; the politically-charged negotiations of medical expertise amongst a wide variety of peoples, and most importantly; the infectious mohair of Turkish Angora goats.


Professor Greg Radick introduces the speakers, with the gruesome Anthrax finger to his right, and pictured on the screen

Jamie’s narrative began locally, with the case of the sudden death of James Greenwood, a Bradford wool-sorter who, in July of 1880, complained of an “aching in his bones” as he returned home from another gruelling day in the factory. Within 24 hours, he was dead. Reported in the local newspaper, Greenwood’s death was attributed to “Wool-sorters disease”. Nowadays, we would simply classify this malady as “Anthrax.” And we might think that by 1880, amid the so-called “bacteriological revolution” (the period in which medical practitioners began attributing causal status to specific microorganisms in the development of particular diseases), that Greenwood’s contemporaries would have been beginning to do the same. However, Jamie did a wonderful job of emphasising the protracted nature of the negotiations over the identity of this particular ailment; though the term “anthrax” was used at this time (and long before) to describe the symptoms presented in Greenwood, it was far from universal. For workers in the wool factories, branding the disease as their own, one specific to their working conditions, would provide leverage in bargaining for the improvement of these conditions. The establishment were sceptical, attributing the cases to the kinds of conditions found in workplaces everywhere, or even to the drinking habits of the workers. Disagreement over the cause, nature, and identity of this disease, which presented itself through sores and pustules on the skin (thus providing the excuse for our speakers to display numerous grim pictures), raged throughout most of the latter half of the 19th, and into the 20th century.


Dr Jamie Stark explains the representations of anthrax symptoms used to raise awareness among wool factory workers

Zoning in on the finger itself, we heard from Richard about the beginnings of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical and pathological specimens in the 18th century. What with corpses being relatively difficult to come by, and possessing a limited shelf-life, the preserving of dismembered body parts was a flexible tool for building up a large catalogue of reusable specimens in teaching. Samples could be prepared in different stages of the decay process, or utilising various techniques to emphasise particular aspects of the specimen. The impact of these practices, Richard explained, extended beyond the realm of science and medicine, inspiring the innovative floral arrangements depicted in the paintings of figures like Rachel Ruysch.

   big-bird-anthraxRichard Bellis explains the drawbacks of using cadavers in demonstration; seven of the Sesame Street gang have to crowd around one specimen, as Big Bird orates

We were then transported from the local to the global (and back again), as Jamie resumed his story by telling us about Friedrich Wilhelm Eurich of Bradford, also known as “Professor Anthrax”. Eurich, we heard, was instrumental in putting measures in place to prevent wool-sorters from becoming victims of the disease, such as a system for wool disinfection, and the introduction of into factories of “cautionary notices” advising workers to seek medical advice immediately should any of the described (and colourfully pictured) symptoms present themselves. Leaving Yorkshire behind, we were taken across the globe to learn about some of Anthrax’s other alter egos. In Australia, the “Cumberland disease” ravaged livestock in the region of modern-day Sydney, prompting numerous attempts to provide cures or vaccinations for this economically detrimental illness, some more successful than others. We then moved on to Turkey, where the mohair of Angora goats living around lake Van was pinpointed by Bradford journalists as carrying the much-feared disease (known locally as “Dallack”) on its way to British shores.


The Angora Goat, in all its glory

The lecture ended with some provocative reflections. We tend to think of diseases as being well-defined, and the expertise upon them belonging to an exclusive and highly-trained medical elite. Dr Stark demonstrated how little over 100 years ago, the picture looked very different indeed. The diseases discussed in this lecture were defined divergently based, not just on symptoms and causes, but also on location, and even the occupation of the patient. Farmers, workers, employers and journalists joined physicians in offering their own thoughts on the nature of diseases. Later in the twentieth-century, the cultural authority of medical practitioners reached what may be seen by future historians as its peak. I can’t help thinking that today, as we increasingly consult search-engines and our fellow internet-users concerning matters medical, and the spectre of a “post-truth,” “post-fact,” “post-expertise” world looms, we are particularly well-placed to appreciate the fragility of the authority of medicine and science, and thus to uncover the historical and social processes through which that authority was achieved in the not-so-distant past.

Next month’s lecture sees the series reach its halfway-point. Professor Gregory Radick will introduce us to the Newlyn-Phillips Machine, and use it to show us “How Money (with Help from Models and Maths) Makes the World Go Around”. With the lecture taking place on 13th December, and thus well into the notoriously pocket-emptying festive season, I’m sure few of us will be able to disagree.

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