These days, most people associate anthrax with bioterrorism, but a century ago the insidious bacteria was the source of an infectious outbreak in the UW’s dairy herd.
On the morning of Aug. 15, 1909, a herder found a dead cow on the university farm’s pasture. At first a lightning strike was suspected, as there had been a violent storm the night before, but it was later confirmed that the cow had contracted anthrax, which can be lethal to humans and animals. To protect the public health, the cow’s carcass was immediately burned, and a quarantine was placed on the herd and the farm. Sales of milk and cream from the University Dairy were halted and signs were posted to warn locals that anthrax had been found on campus.
In the months following the initial discovery, the university’s cows and swine continued to perish. These infected animals had to be disposed of safely, so a crematorium was constructed in 1910 on Herrick Drive, on the site that now houses the Carrot and Beet Lab. Infected animals that were not cremated were buried near Picnic Point, and the site became contaminated.
Experts say there’s no need for Badgers to panic — the UW site does not pose a public health threat. Anthrax spores can survive for decades in the soil, but they aren’t likely to survive in the UW site’s damp conditions, and the contagion does not spread through ground water. The exact location of the burial ground has never been determined, although there is a large grassy area near Picnic Point that is not to be disturbed even today.