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Biological Warfare in the American Revolution?

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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.

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science
Why Adding Water to Your Whiskey Makes It Taste Better
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Don’t ever let people tease you for watering down your whiskey. If they’re true aficionados, they’ll know that adding a splash of water or a few cubes of ice to your drink will actually enhance its natural flavors. But how can something as flavorless as water make a barrel-aged scotch or bourbon taste even better? Chemists think they’ve found the answer.

As The Verge reports, researchers from the Linnæus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden analyzed the molecular composition of whiskey in the presence of water. We already know that the molecule guaiacol is largely responsible for whiskey’s smoky taste and aroma. Guaiacol bonds to alcohol molecules, which means that in straight whisky that guaiacol flavor will be fairly evenly distributed throughout the cask. Alcohol is repelled by water, and guaiacol partially so. That means when a splash of the water is added to the beverage the alcohol gets pushed to the surface, dragging the guaiacol along with it. Concentrated at the top of the glass, the whiskey’s distinctive taste and scent is in the perfect position to be noticed by the drinker.

According to the team’s experiments, which they laid out in the journal Scientific Reports [PDF], whiskey that’s been diluted down to 40 percent to 45 percent alcohol content will start to show more guaiacol sloshing near the surface. Most commercial whiskey is already diluted before it's bottled, so the drink you order in a bar should fall within this range to begin with. Adding additional water or ice will boost the flavor-enhancing effect even further.

As for just how much water to add, the paper doesn’t specify. Whiskey lovers will just have to conduct some experiments of their own to see which ratios suit their palate.

[h/t NPR]

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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman
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Animals
DNA Tests Show ‘Extinct’ Penguin Species Never Existed
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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman

Science is a self-correcting process, ever in flux. Accepted hypotheses are overturned in the face of new information. The world isn’t flat after all. Disease isn’t caused by demons or wickedness. And that Hunter Island penguin? Yeah, apparently that was just a figment of our imaginations. Researchers writing in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society say the remains of one supposed species are in fact a “jumbled mixture” of bones from three extant species.

The bones were unearthed in the 1980s during the excavation of a prehistoric trash heap on Tasmania’s Hunter Island. Two scientists named Tets and O’Connor argued that the remains were different enough from other penguins to constitute their own genus and species, one which must have died out during the Holocene epoch. The proud potential penguin parents dubbed the apparently extinct bird Tasidyptes hunterivan, and that was that.

Except that this is science, where no story is ever really over. Other biologists were not satisfied with the evidence Tets and O’Connor presented. There were only four bones, and they all bore some resemblance to species that exist today. Fortunately, in 2017, we’ve got ways of making fossils talk. A research team led by Tess Cole of the University of Otago used DNA barcoding to examine the genetic code of each of the four bones.

“It was a fun and unexpected story,” Cole said in a statement, “because we show that Tasmania’s ‘extinct' penguin is not actually an extinct or unique penguin at all.”

Snares penguins dive into the water.
Snares penguins (Eudyptes robustus).
Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The bones were “a jumbled mixture of three living penguin species, from two genera": the Fiordland crested penguin or Tawaki (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) and the Snares crested penguin (Eudyptes robustus), both of New Zealand, and the Australian little fairy penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae).

“This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be,” Cole said. “Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case.”

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