‘The Making of Modern Anthrax, 1875-1920’ reviewed by Dr Anne Hanley

‘The Making of Modern Anthrax, 1875-1920’ by James F. Stark (Pickering and Chatto, 2013).

anthraxIn his recent book, The Making of Modern Anthrax, James Stark offers a new and persuasive account of how medical knowledge of anthrax as a single disease identity developed across the final decades of the nineteenth century. He demonstrates that anthrax, before the crystallisation of its nomenclature, had a diverse range of discrete and locally bounded identities grounded in different political, economic and social contexts. A variety of occupational illnesses, including woolsorters’ disease in Bradford as well as Cumberland disease in Australia, eventually coalesced under the nomenclature of anthrax. In all of their diverse contexts, these proto-anthrax disease identities were characterized as ‘diseases of modernity,’ with strong links to industrialisation, globalisation, commerce and emerging laboratory practices. Bradford, as the heart of a booming international wool trade and an important site of anthrax research, was for Stark the ‘melting pot’ for these developments. It is this knot of complex interconnections that The Making of Modern Anthrax seeks to unravel.

No previous historical account has situated Bradford’s wool industry at the centre of the story of anthrax. Neither has any moved beyond a focus on medical knowledge and research practices to consider how wider spheres of specialist non-medical knowledge informed emerging understandings of anthrax as a single disease identity. The accepted historical narrative of anthrax is one of profound change following Robert Koch’s identification of Bacillus Anthracis as its causative pathogen. This historical narrative is one of bacteriological research and the exchange of specialist medical knowledge among eminent clinicians. Stark breaks with this traditional narrative by emphasising the centrality of local knowledge derived from, among other places, Bradford’s wool industry. Indeed, he identifies the woolsorters of West Yorkshire, along with local public health officials and medical experts such as John Henry Bell and Frederick William Eurich, as key actors in the eventual systematisation of anthrax’s nosology.

At the heart of Stark’s book are two important questions. First, what was the impact of the bacteriological revolution on the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of anthrax? Second, how did such diverse and locally defined late-nineteenth-century disease identities coalesce, in public and professional discourse, into the seemingly unified nosology of anthrax by the 1920s? To answer these questions, Stark moves beyond established channels of historical research to examine what he identifies as the principle forums through which anthrax’s nomenclature was established: legislative change; commercial records and correspondence about the wool trade; and press discussion of agricultural and industrial practices.

Geographies of knowledge, specifically the movement of knowledge between medical and lay communities, are central to this work. Stark ambitiously attempts to unpick how knowledge of anthrax moved between these groups, and to demonstrate how the development of medical knowledge and preventative public health measures was influenced by non-medical actors, such as woolsorters, coroners, newspaper editors, pastoralists and factory owners. By placing Bradford at the centre of his book, Stark effectively situates developments in local medical knowledge within a wider and complex context of industrialisation, globalisation and commerce. This enables him to present a persuasive historical account in which economic, commercial, cultural and social forces were as instrumental in the ‘making’ of anthrax as were the better-documented spheres of clinical practice and laboratory-based research. Indeed, in keeping with recent revisionist histories, such as Michael Worboys’ Spreading Germs (2000), which challenge the traditional notion of a bacteriological revolution, this book seeks to demonstrate that the adoption of new bacteriological knowledge claims and research practices was only one part of the much larger story of nineteenth-century anthrax.

Although such a focus on local commercial and medical knowledge is undoubtedly important, it also obscures the movement (or lack of movement) of biomedical knowledge between different medical communities. Although the work of Koch and Louis Pasteur has already been extensively documented, Stark’s work would have benefitted from greater attention to the influence of continental developments on local medical knowledge at the coalface. It would have been interesting to think about the role of generational shifts in the adoption of new knowledge claims and practices. For example, were older generations of general practitioners holding onto established empirical practices and therefore less inclined to adopt new technologies and laboratory-based practices which they did not wholly understand or trust?

The Making of Modern Anthrax is very accessible to a wide readership. Stark’s methodology and research findings move beyond the history of a single disease entity, forcing us to reevaluate our understanding of the development and communication of knowledge and practice surrounding diseases. Moreover, this book speaks to recent historical and public discussion which has situated a variety of diseases, including Ebola and Swine Flu, within a global context. Stark’s work encourages readers to think simultaneously on local, national and international levels about the transmission of diseases, as well as knowledge surrounding those diseases.


Reviewed by Dr Anne Hanley, who holds a PhD in medical history from the University of Cambridge, and is currently a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Her research and teaching relates primarily to the social history of medicine during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whilst also drawing upon a number of closely-related themes in gender, political, and economic history. She has previously published in Social History of Medicine and Medical History, and has contributed to Tracey Loughran and Gayle Davis’s forthcoming edited collection, Infertility in History: Approaches, Contexts and Perspectives.

Correspondence to Dr Anne Hanley.

Works Cited:

Worboys, Michael. 2000. Spreading germs: Disease theories and medical practice in Britain, 1865-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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