ABSTRACT

An examination of almost all recently published texts on pathology, industrial medicine and bacterial diseases reveals a common underlying assumption that the appearance of external anthrax is somehow distinctive and easily recognizable.3 In addition, this is not a new phenomenon, as the gap of 145 years between the two quotations above demonstrates; the idea of a ‘characteristic’ appearance for anthrax lesions on the skin was established long before a cause for the disease itself was identi ed. e pustules that indicate the presence of an anthrax infection in the skin are said to be large and almost exclusively black in colour. Nor is this a phenomenon restricted to contemporary descriptions of the disease: the French word for the disease, charbon, means ‘coal’, ‘charcoal’ or ‘carbon’, re ecting the colour of the external lesions.4 e association between anthrax pustules and their colour and general appearance is therefore one which earned the disease, and its supposedly characteristic pustules, its name. is view is deeply embedded within the visual culture of anthrax; as far back as the late fourteenth century, English texts referred to the ‘coal- re’ appearance of the disease on human skin.5 Historians of medicine have likewise taken the nature of the pustules of external anthrax for granted. Studies addressing the visual properties of anthrax have largely focused on the causative organism – Bacillus anthracis – and the manner in which representations of this bacillus were exchanged between centres of research.6 e seeming visual ubiquity of anthrax pustules was established long before the bacillus had even been observed, however, and the idea of the characteristic anthrax pustule remained almost completely intact despite the emergence of the germ-theoretic cause of anthrax lesions during the second half of the nineteenth century. e appearance of these lesions in accounts of the history of the disease is agreed on by scholars to be somehow ‘classic, char-

acteristic or typical’.7 Whilst histories of anthrax neglect critically to examine this view, the disease is similarly marginalized within the literature on the history of dermatology; anthrax, a er all, was and is a disease not speci c to the skin.8 Claudia Benthien has noted that the skin represents the major medium through which bodies can encounter one another.9 ese encounters also apply to practitioner-patient relationships and diagnostic practices, however, and the ‘anthrax-encounter’ has been and remains one based around the visual properties of lesions on the skin.