Measles, War and Intelligence (1862)

Image © Library of Congress

While doing some photo research on historical archival images of global vaccination, I came across this simple yet powerful image that struck me. A very straight forward, properly exposed environmental portrait of a person without any dramatic appearance that was captured in September 1862. But the guy was not straight at all. To know about this person we have to dig deep into the history of the American civil war.

Between 1861 to 1865, America witnessed the worst civil war in its history, in which Measles played a major role. Measles sickened troops on both sides of the American Civil War. As written by Michael B. A Oldstone in his Viruses, Plagues, & History (146-47 (2009)):

“During the first year of the war, there were 21,676 reported cases of measles and 551 deaths in the Union Army alone. Deaths were primarily from respiratory and cerebral (brain) involvement. It was recorded, ‘This infection is always serious, often fatal either directly or through its sequelae. The Prognosis, therefore, should be guarded. […]

The American Civil War was the last large-scale military conflict fought before the germ theory of disease was developed… Two-thirds of soldiers who died in that war, 660,000 in all, were killed by uncontrolled infectious diseases. Of these, in the Union Army over 67,000 had measles and more than 4,000 died.”

This particular photograph shows Allan J. Pinkerton on horseback during the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Before the outbreak of war, he had founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. In 1861, he famously foiled an alleged plot to assassinate president-elect Lincoln, and later served as the head of the Union Intelligence Service — the forerunner of the U.S. Secret Service.

Disease, war, and politics are intertwined from the inception of mankind. And there few species of mankind who always become benefitted from disease and war. How come? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…

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