Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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The beginnings of bioterrorism

During the Civil War, Dr Blackburn hatched a plan to use sickness as a weapon

The post-9/11 world isn’t the first period in history during which microbes have been employed to nefarious ends. Almost 150 years before anthrax started arriving at


senators’ doorsteps and media outlets courtesy of terrorists, either foreign or domestic, the governor of Kentucky had a similar idea. In 1864, Dr Luke Blackburn decided that yellow fever would make a nice addition to the South’s arsenal of weapons used to fight the North during the American Civil War.



Luke Blackburn was born in 1816 in Woodford County, Kentucky. He was a standout among his 13 brothers and sisters and began to nurture an interest in medicine. After working with his uncle, Charles Blackburn, a doctor who tended to the sick during the common cholera outbreaks at the time, young Luke was inspired to make it official and enrolled in medical school at the age of 18. After graduating from Kentucky’s Transylvania University in 1835, he set up shop locally in Lexington.

His early career was distinguished by his bravery and philanthropy in the face of great risk. Despite fear of contagion, Blackburn ministered to the sick and dying with little regard for himself. He also often treated patients for free, despite the fact that he now had a wife and son to care for, too. Year after year, he battled the frequent infectious outbreaks that plagued the poor citizens of the South.

His family had a history of civil service in government. Though Blackburn also dabbled in local politics, he put any official aspirations aside when his medical practice brought him to the state of Mississippi, where public health issues were at the forefront. Only this time, the contagion in question was yellow fever. Those fortunate enough to catch a mild form of the disease endured some aches and pains, fever and a headache. But the deadly virus killed upwards of one third of those who contracted it — with many outbreaks the fatality rate was even as high as
85 percent — and the end for them was not pretty.

The black vomit, as it was often called, devastated the internal organs. Fever, muscle weakness, nausea and constipation were only the beginning. After a brief respite from the initial symptoms, during the so-called toxic phase the virus continued its deadly advance with a vengeance. Within days, jaundice set in, and the internal hemorrhaging responsible for sufferers’ characteristic dark vomit and stool took their toll. Liver and kidney inflammation soon followed, with hallucinations coming before coma and, finally, roughly 10 days after the initial infection, death. Many of those who survived were so traumatized that they would never again be the same, even when they made full physical recoveries. Blackburn, undaunted, fought valiantly on behalf of the afflicted, meeting the killer virus head on.

It would prove to be a match made in hell. At first, Blackburn’s battle against yellow fever would bring the promising young physician great respect and even fame. He was well known for setting up the first effective quarantines in the US during the 1853 yellow fever outbreaks in the Mississippi River Valley. Before too long, however, his intimate knowledge of the virus took on an altogether different tone.



When the Civil War broke out in 1861, life held a new gravity for the politically minded physician. A staunch Southern Rebel through and through, Blackburn grew increasingly perturbed by the Northern advances. Though he was
already in his 40s at the time, and therefore too old to take up arms on the frontlines of the battles himself, he vowed to do what he could for his beloved South. After his request to become the General Inspector of the Hospitals and Camps was turned down — despite the fact that he was willing to do it pro bono — he was enlisted by the Mississippi governor as a civilian agent and made his way up to Toronto in 1863 to collect supplies for the Southern ships aiming to penetrate Northern naval blockades. The city was then increasingly becoming a haven for well-to-do Confederate plotters intent on dreaming up new ways to sabotage the North from the relative safety of neutral Canadian territory.

The year was 1864, and things weren’t going well for the Confederate Army. Blackburn hatched a plan that was to make macabre use of his area of expertise. In April of that year, he heard that there was a fresh yellow fever outbreak in Bermuda, so he set sail for the island, “volunteering” to help out. Over the next few months and two trips to the disease-plagued isle, Blackburn set about the grotesque task of secretly collecting his patients’ blood-, vomit-, and feces-stained dressings, blankets and clothes. He then packed them into trunks and sent them to Halifax.

Once the outbreak had passed, Blackburn returned to Canada and arranged to smuggle the trunks south across the border and deliver them to cities like Washington, D.C. where he believed they would cause widespread infection once opened. Legend has it that one particularly fetid trunk was supposed to be delivered to President Lincoln. Blackburn himself proudly referred to his actions as “an infallible plan directed against the masses of Northern people solely to create death.” It certainly was a far cry from “First, do no harm...”



Blackburn’s suspicious behaviour in Bermuda, along with the testimony of a disgruntled, unpaid trunk smuggler, eventually led to his arrest in Montreal shortly after the Civil War ended. His infected trunks never reached their targets, though they would have failed in their task as biological bombs, since mosquitoes are the real culprits behind the spread of yellow fever.

Instead of returning to the US to face murder conspiracy charges, Blackburn chose to stand trial in Toronto for breaking Canada’s neutrality act. The shamed doctor, ever bitter about the fall of the South and fearful of prosecution at home, elected to remain here after he was acquitted. He only dared return to the South in 1873 during a new yellow fever outbreak. Despite the outstanding warrants for his arrest in the United States, he received a hero’s welcome.

Luke Pryor Blackburn would go on to become the Governor of Kentucky in 1879, serving in office for four years and then continuing his medical practice until his death on September 14, 1887. As a physician in the Antebellum South, he would be remembered as a humanitarian for his efforts at combatting countless viral outbreaks. As a politician, he would be remembered — and occasionally reviled — for his efforts at prison reform, especially raising taxes to improve the conditions at the state’s most notorious prison, Frankfort Penitentiary, a.k.a The Black Hole of Calcutta. It is doubtful, however, that many other men whose tombstones read “The Good Samaritan” also have on their resumes the attempt to release a weapon of mass destruction among the citizens of their own country.

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