Biological Warfare in the American Revolution?

Popular culture has given us the idea that war used to be less vicious and more orderly. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the American Revolution, I can’t help but picture soldiers standing in straight single-file lines on either side of the battlefield waiting for the command to fire. It’s always been depicted as being so proper.

But I recently read a piece in the journal Colonial Williamsburg that opened my eyes to battle tactics during the revolution. In the article "Colonial Germ Warfare", author/historian Harold B. Gill Jr. reveals that there’s "no proof that anyone attempted to spread disease among the enemy troops during the American Revolutionary War, but there is a plenitude of circumstantial evidence."

It turns out the British army may well have been using smallpox as a weapon against the Continental Army.

Smallpox would have been the obvious disease of choice for a redcoat germ warfare campaign. In Europe, the disease was common, and most British troops had already been exposed to it at an early age, and developed antibodies to protect themselves from it. Most American soldiers probably hadn't been exposed to smallpox, though, and wouldn't have developed an immunity.

Washington could have inoculated all his troops, giving them a mild infection and building up their resistance, but that would have laid up all his soldiers for a few days at the same time. Instead, he ordered new recruits who hadn’t been sick with smallpox to get inoculated between training and deployment. This got the army on its feet for the most part, but left gaps in the protection of some veteran troops.

At first, Washington did not seem to believe that the British would turn to biological weapons. While the colonials laid siege to Boston in 1775, the British in the city were busy inoculating their troops. British deserters reported to the Continentals that “‘several persons are to be sent out of Boston ... that have been inoculated with the small-pox’ with the intention of spreading the infection.” According to Gill, both Washington and his aide-de-camp initially thought the reports weren't credible, but Washington quickly changed his mind and wrote to John Hancock a week later when diseased deserters and civilians made their way into his camp.

That same year, the defenders of Quebec reportedly used a similar tactic. As Gill explains:

"It was rumored that General Guy Carleton, British commander in Quebec, sent infected people to the American camp. Thomas Jefferson was convinced the British were responsible for illness in the lines. He later wrote: ‘I have been informed by officers who were on the spot, and whom I believe myself, that this disorder was sent into our army designedly by the commanding officer in Quebec.’ After the defeat at Quebec the American troops gathered at Crown Point, where John Adams found their condition deplorable: ‘Our Army at Crown Point is an object of wretchedness to fill a humane mind with horrour; disgraced, defeated, discontented, diseased, naked, undisciplined, eaten up with vermin; no clothes, beds, blankets, no medicines; no victuals, but salt pork and flour.’"

It wasn’t just the rebel army the British were targeting, either. In one of a few cases of explicit evidence of germ warfare tactics, General Alexander Leslie revealed he had no reservations about infecting civilians. He told General Cornwallis in 1781 that he planned to bring “above 700 Negroes…down the River with the Small Pox,” and send them to various “Rebell Plantations.” Similarly, before Virginia's royal governor fled Norfolk in 1776, he was said to have intentionally infected two of his slaves with smallpox and then released them into the colony to spread the disease.

Atrocity, this reminds us, is not an invention of the modern era. The weapons may have been cruder and a little less effective, but the goals behind them – complete destruction of the enemy, collateral damage be damned – are something we can easily recognize from modern acts of war and terror.
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For more on colonial germ warfare, see Colonial Williamsburg. Hat tip to Christopher Albon and his awesome blog Conflict Health for putting the story on my radar.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
13 Electrifying Nikola Tesla Quotes
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The greatest geek who ever lived had more than just science on the brain. While he was alive, Nikola Tesla’s advancements were frequently and famously attributed to others. But history has shown us the magnitude of his work, a sentiment best expressed by Fiorello LaGuardia’s eulogy: “Tesla is not really dead. Only his poor wasted body has been stilled. The real, the important part of Tesla lives in his achievement which is great, almost beyond calculation, an integral part of our civilization, of our daily lives.” Here are 13 electric quotes from the legendary scientist/engineer/inventor.


“... The female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.”

—From a 1926 interview by John B. Kennedy, “When Woman Is Boss"


“... The papers, which 30 years ago conferred upon me the honor of American citizenship, are always kept in a safe, while my orders, diplomas, degrees, gold medals and other distinctions are packed away in old trunks.”

—From “My Inventions V – The Magnifying Transmitter," 1919


“There is something within me that might be illusion as it is often case with young delighted people, but if I would be fortunate to achieve some of my ideals, it would be on the behalf of the whole of humanity. If those hopes would become fulfilled, the most exciting thought would be that it is a deed of a Serb.”

—From an address at the Belgrade train station, 1892


Blue Portrait of Nikola Tesla, the only painting Tesla posed for
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

"We begin to think cosmically. Our sympathetic feelers reach out into the dim distance. The bacteria of the 'Weltschmerz' are upon us. So far, however, universal harmony has been attained only in a single sphere of international relationship. That is the postal service. Its mechanism is working satisfactorily, but—how remote are we still from that scrupulous respect of the sanctity of the mail bag!"

—From “The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires as a Means for Furthering Peace,” 1905


“What the result of these investigations will be the future will tell; but whatever they may be, and to whatever this principle may lead, I shall be sufficiently recompensed if later it will be admitted that I have contributed a share, however small, to the advancement of science.”

—From “The Tesla Alternate Current Motor,” 1888


“That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually 'feel it work.' They want to try their first idea right off; and the result is they use up lots of money and lots of good material, only to find eventually that they are working in the wrong direction. We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.”

—From “Tesla, Man and Inventor,” 1895


“Most certainly, some planets are not inhabited, but others are, and among these there must exist life under all conditions and phases of development.”

—From “How to Signal to Mars,” 1910


"When we speak of man, we have a conception of humanity as a whole, and before applying scientific methods to the investigation of his movement, we must accept this as a physical fact. But can anyone doubt to-day that all the millions of individuals and all the innumerable types and characters constitute an entity, a unit? Though free to think and act, we are held together, like the stars in the firmament, with ties inseparable. These ties cannot be seen, but we can feel them. I cut myself in the finger, and it pains me: this finger is a part of me. I see a friend hurt, and it hurts me, too: my friend and I are one. And now I see stricken down an enemy, a lump of matter which, of all the lumps of matter in the universe, I care least for, and it still grieves me. Does this not prove that each of us is only part of a whole?"

—From “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy,” 1900


Nikola Tesla, with Rudjer Boscovich's book "Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis", in front of the spiral coil of his high-voltage Tesla coil transformer at his East Houston St., New York, laboratory.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

“We build but to tear down. Most of our work and resource is squandered. Our onward march is marked by devastation. Everywhere there is an appalling loss of time, effort and life. A cheerless view, but true.”

—From “What Science May Achieve this Year,” 1910


“Everyone should consider his body as a priceless gift from one whom he loves above all, a marvelous work of art, of indescribable beauty, and mystery beyond human conception, and so delicate that a word, a breath, a look, nay, a thought may injure it. Uncleanliness, which breeds disease and death, is not only a self-destructive but highly immoral habit.”

—From “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy," 1900


"It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages around the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus."

From Popular Mechanics via the New York Times, October 1909


"Let the future tell the truth and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine."

—As quoted in Tesla: Man Out of Time, by Margaret Cheney, 2001


“Life is and will ever remain an equation incapable of solution, but it contains certain known factors.”

—From “A Machine to End War,” 1935 [PDF]

Gut Bacteria Could Be Keeping You Up at Night

The bacteria in your gut do far more than help digest food. In recent years, scientists have discovered that they play an important role in myriad bodily processes, from mood and mental health to obesity and gastrointestinal disease. According to recent research, the trillions of microbes in your gut could also impact how you sleep, The Guardian reports.

Though investigation into the links between sleep and intestinal bacteria is just beginning, scientists already know that lack of sleep takes a toll on the body beyond just causing fatigue. It may contribute to the risk of obesity and developing type 2 diabetes. However, digestive processes may themselves affect sleep, scientists now suggest. "There is no question in my mind that gut health is linked to sleep health, although we do not have the studies to prove it yet," psychologist Michael Breus told The Guardian.

A study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience found that rats fed a prebiotic diet (consisting of fiber that gut bacteria can feed on) had better-quality sleep than rats fed a control diet. The researchers linked this better sleep to increases in the gut bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a popular probiotic strain. The rats spent more time in REM sleep even when they were subjected to stress, which has been linked to insomnia issues.

To demonstrate how the microbiome affects sleep, though, researchers will likely have to untangle it from the many other ways that the microbiome affects our health, mental and otherwise. Imbalances in gut bacteria might influence depression, which in turn disrupts sleep. Other studies have suggested that poor-quality sleep affects the microbiome, rather than the other way around. Given how much impact the microbiome has on our health, it makes sense that there could be links between major health issues like insomnia and our bacterial colonies. The nature of those links, though, will require much more research to tease out.

[h/t The Guardian]


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