Once believed to be a manifestation of "unholy fire" that consumed infected animals, anthrax is now being seen as a potentially devastating weapon of terror. Medical anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin's book "Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak" looks into the effects an anthrax outbreak can have on survivors and analyzes the prospects of biological warfare in the not-too-distant future. Read an excerpt from her book here.
Tuesday, June 2, 1992. After a long transatlantic flight from New York, our research team arrives in the new post-Soviet Russia, a nation that six months before did not exist. We are in the first stage of a trip to investigate the cause of the worst anthrax epidemic recorded in a modern industrial nation. The outbreak occurred in April and May 1979 in Sverdlovsk, an industrial city in the Ural Mountains, nine hundred miles east of Moscow. According to Soviet reports, by the time it was over, at least sixty-four people had died from this rare disease.
Leading the team is Matthew Meselson, a Harvard University biologist. I am the expedition's anthropologist, from Boston College, a Jesuit university that has unblinkingly supported my research for nearly twenty years. Matthew and I are also husband and wife. Doing research with a spouse can be problematic, especially when both are strong-minded individuals. Working on a politically charged issue in a foreign country can compound the difficulties, particularly when that country is the former Soviet Union, where censorship and political repression were the norm. But we have researched and written together before, on the "Yellow Rain" controversy. That investigation, during the 1980s, involved clarifying whether or not a dangerous mycotoxin had, with Soviet assistance, been used by Laos against its Hmong minority. By 1991, when Matthew began recruiting the Sverdlovsk team, I was well immersed in the details of this new problem and had made several trips to the Soviet Union, although none with the purpose and potential of this foray.
Matthew's commitment to discovering the Sverdlovsk epidemic's cause goes back to 1980, when he was consulted by the CIA after news of the event leaked to the West. In the years that followed, the world learned little about the outbreak, though speculations and suspicions abounded. Claims by a few Soviet dissidents that an explosion in a secret biological weapons laboratory caused thousands of deaths were countered by the Soviet government's contention that a much smaller number of people died from eating anthrax-infected meat sold on the black market. For years, Matthew, who has long been an advocate for the prohibition of chemical and biological weapons, has requested permission from the USSR for impartial experts to investigate the outbreak firsthand, but these requests have been denied. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, the political doors have opened for our travel to Sverdlovsk, which has reclaimed its prerevolutionary name, Yekaterinburg. We have allowed ourselves only two weeks to attempt to discover conclusive evidence about the source of the 1979 anthrax deaths.