Death in the Woolpack
Hide Porter’s Disease
Written by Philip Warner
A close-up of microscopic glass slides showing the bacterium bacillus anthracis in the National Leather Collection
Microscopic glass slides with samples the bacterium bacillus anthracis in the National Leather Collection
Fresh in time for Halloween comes one of the darker stories that has afflicted the hide and leather industry: ‘la maladie de Bradford’.
The West Riding of Yorkshire’s phenomenal growth during the 19th Century was founded on the wool industry. A total of 925 factories employed thousands of ‘woolsorters’, the skill of whom it was to identify the correct quality of fleece for a specific cloth. The role of woolsorter was highly skilled and well paid. The wool-sorting process was carried out over a wire rack where ‘hair-on’ sheepskins were first assessed and graded in preparation for the textile factories. It was unpleasant and smelly work, long hours sorting carcases and removing and soiled or spoilt wool.
But there was a problem, the woolsorters were dying. Symptoms presented as dark black lesions on the skin, surrounded by flaming red swellings. Fever, lung and stomach pains were next, followed by a swift demise. There were similar conditions identified around the world, all with their own names; Woolsorters disease, Hide Porter’s disease, Siberian Plague in Russia, Cumberland Disease in New South Wales, Splenic Fever, Malignant Edema.
In 1875, the German physician Robert Koch identified the bacterium that caused the disease as Bacillus anthracis, so named after the ancient Greek word for coal; anthrax. The name being derived from the coal black lesions that present on the skin of the affected.
In Bradford, local doctor John Henry Bell first made the link between ‘la maladie’ or Woolsorters disease, as it was popularly known, and anthrax. Bell, followed by Friederich Wilhelm Eurich (a German professor of forensic medicine and bacteriologist), did much to conquer anthrax in the wool trade in the North of England. Across the channel Louis Pasteur was hotly pursuing production of a vaccine, as the same disease was threatening silk and wine production.
The good news was that by 1881 Pasteur had developed the first vaccine and much more was known about this mysterious killer. Contact with skin was the primary concern for those in industries associated with the hides of sheep, horse and cattle where the bacterium was found to flourish. The vaccine, along with improved factory processes, saw a rapid drop in outbreaks. Those affected with ‘contact’ anthrax had a relatively good prognosis if diagnosed and treated early. It was found, however, that the bacteria was much more dangerous if it got inside the body, where the lungs and stomach provided a perfect breeding ground.
By the early 20th Century this deadly but rare disease was well under control. Today, cases are extremely rare with less than one per year reported in the US over the last 10 years.
But, as with all Halloween stories, there is a dark twist in the tale. The real sinister element of tonight’s tale, ladies and gentlemen is … us!
From the early 20th Century onwards and especially during and after WWII, it has emerged that testing had been undertaken to use anthrax as a weapon. Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea remains uninhabited to this day following Russian testing of chemical weapons. Closer to home, Gruinard Island off the West coast of Scotland, although decontaminated in the 1980s, has remained uninhabited.
There is a cure for the bacteria, but will there ever be a cure for man’s insanity?