Cattle deaths led to discovery of anthrax locally in 1902

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Over the years I have acquired the habit of making notes on strange and curious bits of information that I stumble across when examining old papers and documents.

These are like scattered pieces of a puzzle. Occasionally I am able to assemble a sufficient number of these pieces to give the outline of a story.

This week, I am offering one example. From various newspapers in the 1890s I found accounts of livestock dying suddenly, and with no explanation. 

Papers reported such deaths both before and after this decade, but my curiosity was aroused by the number of them in a short period, beginning in the spring of 1890, and by their concentration in the southern portion of Nichol and Pilkington Townships.

Often there is a key piece to a puzzle, and I found that not long ago. It concerned events on a farm in Waterloo County, just west of the Pilkington Township boundary, near Ariss. Edward Goetz took over this farm from his father-in-law, Andrew Fisher, about 1895. Within a year he started to experience mysteries deaths in his herd.

When these deaths continued into the second and third years, he called in several local veterinarians to examine the dead cattle. They pronounced the cause of death as poisoning by an arsenic compound. 

Goetz tried to keep a close watch on the herd, but the deaths continued, claiming three or four head from his herd each year.

The authorities took the matter seriously. Constables and detectives from the provincial attorney-general’s office poked around and conducted, for days, a thorough investigation. They discovered not even the hint of a clue.

In 1901, realizing that the continuing loss of cattle had him on the road to bankruptcy, Goetz sold the farm and moved on.

The new owner, a farmer named Cousland, came from Peel Township. He moved his herd to the farm, and for the first months all seemed well. Then, on Feb. 4, 1902, one of his cows died following a brief period of illness. Cousland was well aware of the problems that the previous owner had faced, and it now appeared that they had come with the farm.

Rather than a veterinarian, Cousland sent for Inspector Campbell of Berlin (now Kitchener), the federal Department of Agriculture official resident there to monitor the livestock and packing house business of the city.

Campbell conducted a post mortem examination of the carcass, and immediately pronounced the cause of death as anthrax. He took the spleen with him, and ordered the rest of the carcass and hide to be burned immediately.

Back in Berlin, Campbell had one of his medical acquaintances take a smear from the spleen and examine it under a microscope. The doctor confirmed the presence of anthrax bacteria. To be doubly sure, Campbell carefully packed up the spleen and sent it by express to the government bacteriologist in Ottawa. The report confirmed his diagnoses.

To protect the rest of Cousland’s herd, Campbell inoculated the rest of the cattle with what he described as “an experimental serum.” This seems a curious description, because an effective vaccine against anthrax dated back to Louis Pasteur’s work in 1881. The serum used by Campbell was certainly the same or similar to Pasteur’s.

The vaccination of the Cousland herd seems to have been effective. There were no further sudden deaths in this herd.

The anthrax bacterium is normally found in the soil, and can be distributed by water runoff, wind or even biting insects. The deaths of animals to the east of Cousland’s farm, in Pilkington and Nichol, were never identified as anthrax, but such a diagnosis seems the likely explanation.

Sudden deaths there seemed to peter out over time, but it may be that Inspector Campbell and other veterinary men conducted a more extensive inoculation campaign than I have yet discovered.

This is also the earliest example of anthrax that I have seen identified in this area, though it undoubtedly was present here earlier in the 19th century. 

The Provincial Agricultural Commission of 1881, whose report is the key document of agricultural history of its period, devoted only pages of a 550-page report to animal diseases. It makes the extraordinary claim that Ontario herds and horses were largely disease-free, with the exception of occasional cases of tuberculosis, glanders (a contagious lymphatic disease), and problems resulting from excessive inbreeding. There is no mention of anthrax in the report.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to discuss this interesting case with my friend Dean Percy, who spent his career in the field of veterinary medicine. I thought it strange that the veterinarians brought in by Goetz in the late 1890s failed to diagnose the disease. 

Mr. Percy explained that rigorous training of veterinarians dates only to the 1920s and after. It is unlikely that the veterinarians of the 1890s, with their brief and rudimentary educational qualifications, performed post mortem internal examinations, and if they did, their meagre knowledge would not provide them the skills to interpret the evidence.

The dead animals might have shown signs that would suggest arsenic poisoning, but the swollen condition of the spleen resulting from anthrax is produced by no other ailment. As well, the anthrax bacillus is a large one and easy to identify, as in fact was done by Campbell’s associate and confirmed by the Ottawa laboratory.

While most, if not all, of the cattle in the herds of Goetz and Cousland were exposed to anthrax, only a few animals succumbed. These were probably cattle with other problems that made them susceptible to the anthrax bacillus; healthy animals can frequently fend off the disease. 

Anthrax can remain dormant in the soil for years, even decades. Active cases for the past couple of generations have been rare and isolated in Wellington County. Most veterinarians can now go through their careers without seeing a case.

The fact that anthrax is now seldom encountered caused much of the alarm  recently with anthrax-laden letters. I have described the Cousland case to people who are astonished that anthrax existed a hundred years ago – they assume it is some new horror developed by terrorists.

I have little doubt that, over time, I will discover further information about the Goetz and Cousland cases, and others in the county. 

The story illustrates well the tremendous advances made in the field of veterinary medicine in the 20th century, and the impact this has made on the practice of agriculture. But that is a story for another time.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 1, 2002.

Thorning Revisited