Death in a Small Package

Associate Professor Susan Jones' latest book, which traces the history of anthrax from soil-borne disease to human weapon, is a detective story with an unsettled ending.

The inspiration for Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Associate Professor Susan Jones's new book, Death in a Small Package: A Short History of Anthrax, comes from her love of animals, passion for history and a fascination with the strange life story of Bacillus anthracis.

Growing up surrounded by domesticated animals in rural southern Illinois, Jones set her sights on becoming a veterinarian. Now a nationally recognized expert in the history of animal-related diseases as well as a licensed veterinarian, the teenaged Jones shadowed her hometown vet on farm calls.

"Think James Herriot straight out of All Creatures Great and Small," she says. "He was a traditional country veterinarian—he was also one of the first professionals I'd ever met."

One day, bumping along farm fields and pastures, Jones's mentor pointed out an area where anthrax had broken out and killed a herd of cattle. "He cautioned me to stay away from the area, never to dig up the soil, and to always report any suspected outbreaks to the state department of health," she said. His warning stuck with Jones who went on to earn her veterinary license, as well as a doctorate in the history and sociology of science with an emphasis on science's influence on human-animal interactions (including zoonotic diseases).

While the title of her book conjures up memories of the 2001 U.S. postal service outbreak, "Death in a Small Package" actually refers to the tiny, deadly spores of anthrax's causative agent, Bacillus anthracis. 

As an organism, Bacillus anthracismust kill to survive and has a life cycle that's equally gory.  It lies dormant in soils and organic matter, reproducing in grazing animals' bloodstreams, killing them within a few days, then seeping back into the ground via blood from the dying animal's ears, nose and mouth.

But for all its frightening aspects, anthrax existed naturally alongside people and animals for thousands of years. It was the global spread of anthrax by humans—mainly from infected hides and furs that traders carried with them from settlement to settlement and across oceans—that catapulted it from a rare disease to a word that strikes fear in the hearts of people worldwide. Today anthrax is found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.

So how did an ancient, relatively insignificant disease end up becoming a 21st-century threat and headline-making agent of bioterrorism?  Jones's book answers the question by weaving a story that spans centuries and criss-crosses continents from the ancient Middle East, to England's 19th-century woolen mills, to the pastures of modern-day Zimbabwe and high-security American laboratories.

Her book shows how scientists have used phylogenetics, the study of genetic relationships over time, to unravel the genetic history of Bacillus anthracis and determine whether outbreaks of anthrax are natural or human-caused. The final chapters analyze how historians and law enforcement experts have pieced together scientific evidence and human records to show a pattern of distribution and intent to use Bacillus anthracis as biological weapon in the U.S., USSR, Manchuria, and southeastern Africa.

"My book is a study of how humans have altered the natural history of a disease," she says. "Like the sorcerer's apprentice, humans have domesticated and shaped Bacillus anthracis; we've altered its ecological and evolutionary history, but ultimately, we can't control it. It's important for us to understand anthrax's history to develop ethical guidelines and policies to prevent its use as a biological weapon. It's not going away any time soon.”