Saturday, 2 November 2013

Anthrax, bunnies, Frenchmen and beer. A sidetracking journey through our colonial years

Recently I came across a post by the Mt Dandenong & District Historical Society on Facebook.
One of their readers was intrigued by a derelict building that they often passed on Belgrave –Hallam Rd. South of Wellington Rd.

The building on the side of the road

The call was put out if anyone had any history to share. As is often the case with this site, a multitude of followers gave what snippets they knew which culminated in a post of a 1975 newspaper article referring to an anthrax outbreak in a Knackery in Narre Warren North, where four men were hospitalized and many greyhounds kept on the premises were in danger of being put down. The owner of the dogs, a butcher in Prahran was also admitted and had his shop fumigated and all his stock destroyed.

It wasn’t until a Mr. Adam O’Brien posted on behalf of his father to clarify some the situation. The building was the slaughter house the last surviving structure of O’Connor’s Abattoir that operated in the area up until the outbreak.

According to Mr. O’Brien: “There was an animal that came in on a truck with anthrax on it, this was detected and the government declared the site contaminated. They destroyed all fences, clothes, pens etc by burning. They limed the paddocks and pens. The government compulsory acquired everything and forced O’connor’s relocate to Pakenham….. After 29 days of quarantine another animal died and the government gave up and closed the site indefinitely.”
 Mr O’Brien also confirmed the news article mentioned earlier was not related to the property that was being discussed as O’Conner’s was an Abatoir, not a Knackery. (As a side note if you’re wondering what happed to the business? G&K O’Conner flourished in Pakenham and is now the largest meat exporter in Australia as well as one the biggest employers in the area.) This put my focus on the news article.

 Though the articles reported were small and not as alarmists as one would have thought, much of the relating reports concentrated not on the anthrax itself but on the health of dogs at the Sandown racetrack and a simmering feud between the Agricultural and Health departments about who would be best suited to control and contain such outbreaks, as it was only the year before that the State Government had taken responsibility of Knackeries away from the Health Department, who now accused the Agricultural Department of putting different priorities on situations.
I thought that a bit odd and I could find no more mention of the incident after an exhaustive Internet search. I did establish that these incidents were the last known anthrax outbreaks in the Melbourne area.
Most people these days would associate anthrax with the September 11 bombings where there was a spate of envelopes containing white powder believed to be anthrax being sent to Government officials in various countries, causing quite a panic and plenty of news media coverage. Because anthrax is one of the easiest diseases to contain and use as biological weapons it has made it a very popular subject as a storyline in television and movies since the turn of the century.
 Anthrax is one of those diseases from the past such as small pox, rabies, typhoid, cholera and polio that mankind has managed to control and in many cases irradiate. Anthrax is basically a spore and can remain dormant in harsh conditions for decades and in some cases centuries.. When these spores are inhaled, ingested, or come into contact with a skin lesion on a host, they may become reactivated and multiply rapidly.

The disease effects both humans and livestock
Because of its long lifespan the soil borne variety can remain at the burial sites of animals killed by anthrax for many decades. Disturbed grave sites of infected animals have caused reinfection over 70 years after the animal's interment. I learnt that anthrax has been an ongoing concern in Australia for nearly 170 years. It had first been identified near Sydney in 1847, but then it was termed mistakenly as Cumberland disease. Australian stock breeders had become less cautious as the colonies grew, with livestock becoming less of a valuable commodity and ships arriving from Europe becoming more plentiful and faster. With these ships came imports. Human infection has been attributed to handling the hides and pelts of infected animals to the possession of drum skins and shaving and hair brushes. Massive outbreaks came in the 1880s due to imported fertilizer such as dusted blood and bone imported from the sub-Continent. Losses were sometimes catastrophic. It is recorded that in 1885 on one combined property - comprising 220,000 sheep, nearly 5,000 cattle and 600 horses - a total of 42,000 sheep, 500 cattle and 60 horses died from anthrax. At the height of the epidemic, 500 sheep and 40 cattle were found dead in one day. Graziers concealed knowledge of their losses for fear of depreciating the value of their land and not being able to sell stock.

A number of lay remedies, including purgatives and pasturing sheep with goats, were tried with little effect. Luckily it was around this time (1881) the great French micro biologist Louis Pasteur developed the first effective vaccine against Anthrax. Pasteur was a brilliant man and responsible for many great discoveries, his previous research showed that the growth of micro-organisms was responsible for spoiling beverages, such as beer, wine and milk. With this established, he invented a process in which liquids such as milk were heated to kill most bacteria and moulds already present within them.
His work also helped create the vaccines for rabies.

Because of his study in germs, Pasteur encouraged doctors to sanitize their hands and equipment before surgery. Prior to this, few doctors or their assistants practiced these procedures, making way for modern surgical practices. But in 1887 Louis Pasteur had suffered a second stroke and was recovering, Pasteur had dedicated himself to building The Pasteur Institute to continue his commitment to basic research and its practical applications but its establishment and ill health had left him short of funds. He needed a large injection of cash to finish his dreams.

Sydney Morning Herald 17- Sept 1887

 The potential answer to Pasteur’s problems began a bit over 25 years earlier. In 1859 one of Australia’s biggest environmental disasters was playing out. At his property outside Geelong, British-born pastoralist Thomas Austin released twenty-four rabbits, five hares, and seventy-two partridges into the wild. Austin, who hated the local flora and fauna, wanted to introduce “a touch of home”. By the mid1880, the rabbit population had exploded and become a plague, rabbits numbering up to billion know had spread across the country from South Australia to Queensland and all points in between. In 1887 with the problem now extreme, New South Wales premier Sir Henry Parkes sat down with his Rabbit Minister and devised an international competition with of prize of £25,000 for a microbiological remedy to the rabbit plague, to be advertised around the world. In Paris Pasteur’s wife alerted him to the completion, she knew Pasteur’s stroke had been brought on by the money worries of building his Institute and Sir Henry Parkes’ competition prize, the equivalent of $10 million in today’s money, would enable the eminent scientist to equip and staff his institute. Pasteur was certain that he had the winning remedy, chicken cholera, which he had seen swiftly kill rabbits in earlier experiments. Pasteur full of confidence dispatched his nephew and protégé Adrien Loir as part of a three-member team to prove that his remedy would solve the Australasian rabbit plague, and claim the prize, convinced that it should only take four to six weeks for Loir to satisfy the competition judges before setting off home with the desperately needed prize money. But it would not be that simple. On arrival to Melbourne, Loir learned that the competition’s terms of reference required entries to be tested for 12 months.

But Pasteur had only sent his team to Australia with enough money for six weeks. Just as it seemed he might have to leave Australia unrewarded, fate took a hand. Local brewer Thomas Aitken was about to set off for Denmark, to learn the secret of Pasteur’s yeast cultivation techniques that had enabled the brewers of Carlsberg Beer to prosper. Hearing that Pasteur’s nephew was in town, Aitken offered to pay Loir to teach his staff the Pasteur methodology. Loir agreed, and spent two weeks at the Victoria Brewery. As a result, Victoria Bitter beer would become Australia’s top-selling lager, and, with Aitken’s fee of £250 Loir had enough money to keep his team in Australia for a year. Loir’s time in Australia held many highs and lows. His attempt to win the rabbit competition was hampered from the start. Two of the judges were major barbed wire importers, wanting to make rabbit-proof fences compulsory. Another judge was president of a poultry farmers’ association. None wanted Pasteur’s chicken cholera employed against Australia’s rabbits, because they considered it bad for business – their business. To make matters worse, two other influential judges, both Doctors, were students of Louis Pasteur’s greatest scientific rival and harshest critic, Germany’s Robert Koch.

Even his chicken cholera research was copied by another researcher, Oscar Katz, once again a student of Koch. Whilst waiting for the trial period to elapse Loir began researching ‘Cumberland disease’ the disease killing so much livestock in Australia at the time and discovering it to be actually anthrax. Lori had previously worked on a vaccine against anthrax, and proposed a large scale anthrax vaccine trial to the NSW government. Colonial farmers lined up to pay for Pasteur’s vaccine, and stock losses to anthrax quickly declined. To produce the vaccine each summer, Loir set up a Pasteur Institute in the Rodd Island facility on the Parramatta River , enabling him ultimately to send Pasteur more money than even the rabbit prize represented. As for the somewhat influenced Rabbit Commission, it ended up recommending against awarding the prize to anyone, opting for rabbit-proof fences. Misrepresenting the findings of its own ‘expert’, Oscar Katz, the commission dismissed Pasteur’s entry by claiming that chicken cholera did not already exist in Australia, and that its introduction would pose an unacceptable risk to poultry and native birds. Adrien Lori loved Australia but unfortunately his young French wife – who didn’t speak English , whom he married on a whirl wind return to France did not , so he left never to return. Living a full life researching all over the world.

In 1897 it was established Chicken Cholera had existed in Australia, though the findings were vehemently attacked by Rabbit Commission members determined not to have their reputations undermined.

As for the anthrax break out in February 1975 I could find little to nothing to pin point its location so I drove past the old O’Conner site as that was much easier to find.
Guess what I saw running all around it.

 Yep, rabbits.

 Sources: Science, Sex &; Sabotage Stephen Dando-Collins Australian Heritage June 2010
The Age 26+27 Feb 1975
SMH 26 Feb 1975
Mt Dandenong & District Historical Society Facebook
 History of Veterinary Health KL Hughes 1991 Wikipedia: Louis Pasteur / Anthrax
Anthrax in animals DPI pub:Ag0802 Jan 2003

Originally printed in the BBCN December 2013 issue