Bioterror is nothing new

Anton Dilger used anthrax and glanders germs to sabotage horses during World War I; Jack Woodall reviews 'The Fourth Horseman'

Jack Woodall
Jan 18, 2007
Robert Koenig's meticulously researched book The Fourth Horseman is a rattling good read. The tale speeds along like a spy thriller -- which it is -- but it is also packed with esoteric facts and entertaining details on subjects running the gamut from the pivotal role of warhorses before the advent of the jeep to the propagandist voyage to the United States of the German U-boat Deutschland.The central figure is Anton Dilger, MD, alias Dr. Delmar, the handsome son of German immigrants to the U.S. Born in Virginia, Dilger received his medical education in Germany and was recruited there as a spy and germ saboteur. He met his demise in Spain at the war's end under mysterious circumstances.Even before the U.S. entered World War I, it supplied hundreds of thousands of horses and mules to Europe, as both cavalry and pack animals, to support the Allied war effort. The story of how they were bred and transported is fascinatingly told. Among famously wrong predictions must rank that of U.S. Cavalry officer Capt. F.L. Case: "The horse and mule cannot be replaced by gasoline." At the time, horses and mules were essential, and Dilger was tasked by German espionage chiefs to disrupt the traffic of those animals to Europe. Dilger, who had training in microbiology, returned to the U.S. on his American passport and set up a basement lab in Chevy Chase, MD, just six miles from the White House. There he cultured large quantities of anthrax and glanders bacteria, both agents of fatal livestock diseases. He then recruited American stevedores to walk the chain-link fences of the horse corrals at East Coast ports, jabbing glanders cultures into the noses and hides of the animals and dumping the cultures into their food and water troughs.Dilger claimed signal success in killing horses and mules in this way, and his coded reports to Berlin -- along with his strenuous efforts to foment an attack on Texas by the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa as a way to divert the US military from the war in Europe -- earned him the Iron Cross. But there are no Allied records of any serious disruption of horse shipments out of US ports due to disease, and in fact, "Tony's lab" at Chevy Chase was eventually shut down in favor of efforts to sabotage the production and transport of munitions. (Also closed was a branch lab in St. Louis that was inefficiently run by a pair of German agents with no microbiological training. Apparently, the agents had never heard of such a thing as an incubator, because by Thanksgiving they reported: "It was getting too cold out there to breed the cultures or use them.")What caused Dilger to turn traitor? He had been sent to medical school in Germany, joining relatives who had remained there when his parents emigrated, and he became a passionate German patriot during his studies. The tipping point was a French terror attack by aerial bombers on civilians at Karlsruhe, near where he was working as a surgeon, in June 1915. Ironically, the attack was in reprisal for earlier bombings of civilians in France by German zeppelins. This brings to mind the confession of Ken Alibek, the Soviet germ warfare chief during the 1970s, who knew that germ warfare was outlawed by the Geneva Convention, but nevertheless opted to work on it because of the trauma to his nation caused by the siege of Stalingrad and his belief that the US was secretly preparing germ warfare of its own. Alibek, like Dilger, apparently believed that any means was justified to protect his country against such horrors.The Fourth Horseman, released on January 8, leaves its readers with plenty to think about. Koenig, who is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine, has also provided a useful list of sources, a bibliography, and an index.The Fourth Horseman: One Man's Mission to Wage the Great War in America. Robert Koenig. Perseus Books, New York, 2007. 336 pp., b/w photos. $26.00.Jack Woodall is director of the Nucleus for the Investigation of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at Brazil's Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.Jack Woodall jwoodall@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:The Fourth Horseman"Anthrax acts in surprising ways," The Scientist, March 1, 2006 Iron Cross Hollon, "Ken Alibek: For the Biodefense," The Scientist, April 17, 2000 Woodall, "When there is no vaccine," The Scientist, January 1, 2007.