Cudmore: Anthrax was feared in last century

Anthrax was a problem in the mills of Amsterdam in the 1900s

Anthrax was a health risk during the heyday of Mohawk Valley carpet and leather mills. An infection caused by bacteria, anthrax was sometimes called “wool sorters disease.” The disease can infect sheep and anthrax spores can remain in wool for years.

Carpets woven in Amsterdam until production ceased in 1968 generally were made from wool. The wool often was shipped to Amsterdam from foreign lands. The disease also was an issue for workers handling animal skins in Fulton County glove and leather mills.

“Any time you got a scratch in the mill, or a cut, or any kind of a wound at all you had to report it immediately,” said the late Mohawk Carpet union leader Anthony Murdico of Amsterdam in an interview in 2000. “Because anthrax travels around the mill where there’s wool, see. And it can kill you in two days.”

As Murdico pointed out, one way for the disease to enter the human body is through a cut or open sore. Anthrax also can enter the body through the lungs.

An online search of local newspaper clippings turned up a 1916 anthrax fatality at a Gloversville leather mill, a non-fatal case in Gloversville in 1917 plus one anthrax fatality at an Amsterdam carpet mill in 1922 and several non-fatal cases.
Niles Reynolds of Berkshire in Fulton County died from anthrax contracted at G. Levor and Company leather mill in Gloversville on February 4, 1916. He apparently had been handling a sheep skin.

Reynolds succumbed a few days after noticing the infection. Physicians unsuccessfully operated on him and said the 53-year-old might have survived if his overall health had been better. Reynolds left three children and five grandchildren.
The newspaper headline called anthrax the “dread disease of skin workers” and said another Levor worker, John Henry of Orchard Street in Gloversville, had survived an anthrax infection the year before.

In 1917 an apparently non-fatal anthrax infection was reported by William Perham, 18, who worked at the Darius Filmer leather mill in Gloversville. Other leather workers were described as being frightened. Perham had been working on hides imported from Australia and Spain.

William Blakely, 55, described as a wool picker at the then upper mill of Mohawk Carpets in Amsterdam, died Sept. 18, 1922. A newspaper account reported his first symptom was a pimple on his nose near one of his eyes.
The native of Glasgow, Scotland, died after several days at St. Mary’s Hospital. He was a resident of McElwain Avenue and was survived by his wife, Margaret, two daughters and two sons.

It took a compensation commission until the next year to conclude after many hearings that Blakely had indeed died from an anthrax infection.

In 1937, Mohawk Carpet Mills physician Dr. Robert Simpson said the facility had its first anthrax case in six years. An upper mill worker, Charles Povelaites, was being treated for a boil on his arm. He apparently survived.

In 1943, Nicholas Ciocco, 52, was being treated for anthrax with serum sent to Amsterdam City Hospital from New York City.

In 1949, articles on treating anthrax were published in the American Journal of Nursing written by three Mohawk Carpet health professionals from Amsterdam, Dr. Robert Simpson and nurses Mrs. Michael Medwid and Wanda Jackzta.
According to a 1953 newspaper account, two anthrax cases were reported in Amsterdam in 1952.

Today there are vaccines to ward off anthrax. The disease can be treated with antibiotics but can still be fatal.
Anthrax spores can be used as biological weapons and were used in bioterrorism attacks through the U.S. mail in 2001. Five people died.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

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