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Discovery October/November 1999

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Viruses Toppled Rulers and Changed History


by Evelyn Boswell

Viruses have influenced everything from nursery rhymes and cosmetics to the history of the world, a virologist with The Scripps Research Institute said recently at MSU-Bozeman.

"Viruses are invisible and respect no boundaries. They have toppled rulers and ... changed history," Michael B.A. Oldstone said in the university's first Nelson Lecture of the season.

Oldstone, a guest of the Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology, is the author of "Viruses, Plagues, and History." He heads the Division of Virology and the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute. He is a member of the World Health Organization's (WHO) advisory group for eradicating polio and measles.

Viruses have been around since antiquity, killing millions and shifting the world's balances of power, Oldstone said. Yellow fever, for one, spurred the African slave trade, shut down the national government and made it easier for the United States to expand west. Because of smallpox, children recite "Ring Around the Rosy" and women turned to makeup to cover their blemishes.

"Viruses have had profound effects on history, our past and present," Oldstone commented. Reviewing the effects of smallpox over five centuries, Oldstone said the deadly, disfiguring virus helped the Spanish conquer Mexico and Peru in the 16th centuries. Smallpox, along with measles, decimated the Aztecs even though the Indians greatly outnumbered the Spanish. In the 17th century, smallpox killed the queen of England, the king of Germany, the czar of Russia and the kings of France and Holland.

In the 18th century before the American Revolution, the British knowingly spread the virus to Indians by giving them infected blankets. In the 19th century, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis gave cowpox vaccine as a present to the Indians they met on their expedition. The vaccine prevented smallpox. In the 20th century, smallpox was eradicated, but not before killing 300 million people in this century alone.

"In the 20th century, three times as many people died from smallpox as all the wars in the 20th century," Oldstone said. Yellow fever, too, has been a powerful force. Killing about 30 percent of the people it infected, it ravaged the native populations in the Dominican Republic and Cuba in the early days of this country. That led to the importation of more black slaves from Africa, since blacks were generally resistant to yellow fever.

The French then overtook Haiti. When a revolution sprang up, Napoleon sent in 30,000 troops, and 27,000 of those died because of yellow fever and malaria. Yellow fever then spread to Philadelphia as shopkeepers fled Haiti. In the United States, yellow fever effectively shut down the government when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other leaders escaped the city.

Smallpox, measles, polio and yellow fever plagues are now under control, Oldstone said. But four viruses that could develop into plagues are Lassa, Hantavirus, Ebola and HIV. And one that Oldstone expects to return is influenza, the virus that killed 20 to 40 million people in 1918-1919 and 600,000 people during one six-month period in the United States. "We have to be worried about these diseases," Oldstone said.

Urbanization and air travel help spread viruses around the world, Oldstone explained in his 1998 book on plagues and history. Other factors are the unpredictable genetics of viruses and the impact of politics on medicine.

Evelyn Boswell writes for Communications Services and the Vice President for Research Office.

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