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I'm doing my regular reread of Stephen King's The Stand and I got to wondering about the first example of a fictional manmade plague. I know in the book Day of the Triffids there was a lab created plague (possibly!) that wiped out a lot of the blinded people but there's got to be an earlier one than that.

Not an "it came from space" or "evil aliens attack humanity" story but one where, either accidentally or on purpose, a lab plague gets released into the general populace.

Note I've now accepted the earliest one (1890) that's been proposed - however if someone comes up with an earlier one that fits the criteria then I'll happily change it

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    You may research this list: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SyntheticPlague. Quick skimming gave me 1930 book: "In Last and First Men, the second men eventually created a virus designed to destroy the Martians (themselves sentient clouds of microbes), but the side effects of the plague lead to the second men's downfall and replacement by the third men. "
    – MateuszL
    Commented Feb 12 at 8:18
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    "A plague upon both your houses!" Romeo and Juliette, 1597, but admittedly there wasn't any disease involved. Commented Feb 12 at 8:32
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    The motif index to E. F. Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years (which can be borrowed from the Internet Archive has 10 entries under "Plagues, man-made, or otherwise artificial". Some of them might valid answers to this question, but I don't feel like looking into it.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 12 at 10:53
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    So the plague must be manufactured and released, not simply made and kept secret or hidden?
    – fez
    Commented Feb 12 at 11:40
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    +1 Epidemiologist here: kudos for specifying "lab plague"! Because plagues have ecologies, and ecologies are shaped by social processes, most plagues (fictional and non-fictional) could be considered "manmade" in many important senses. Good way to narrow your question. :)
    – Lexible
    Commented Feb 12 at 17:32

4 Answers 4

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"Professor Bakermann's Microbe" (original title "Le microbe du Professeur Bakermann, récit des temps futurs") by Charles Epheyre, first published in Revue Bleue (Revue politique et littéraire) 25 Janvier 1890 is the earliest I've come across.

In the story the titular Professor Bakermann, living in the future world of 1935 where the microbes causing all known diseases have been isolated, dreams of creating a more powerful disease that can't be stopped. He breeds a "microbe" ("virus" is also used in the story) that is resistant to all known drugs and treatments, which naturally gets out of his lab when his wife violates its sanctity to search for incriminating letters.

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"E. F. Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years" has no better answer than DavidW.

With thanks to user14111's insight: the ten references are 22 (dated 1895), 533 (1930), 646 (1892), 896 (1926), 919 (1901), 1141 (1891), 1624 (1888), 1994 (1926), 2086 (1930) and 2091 (1904).

Story 1624 is "Thoth, A Romance"; Joseph Shield Nicholson (but published anonymously by Blackwood, Edinburgh); sounds promising at first to predate DavidW's answer, but the plague sounds biblical, rather than biological, sleep gas is mentioned. I do not see it as a suitable answer from the long synopsis.

A glance through the text suggests that it's a genuine sentient-released plague, but it feels more esoteric that has always existed and been kept under (metaphorical?) lock-and-key than something created/manufactured by technological achievement.

May this save someone else from searching.

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  • I don't follow why you excluded "Thoth, A Romance". OP didn't exclude "things similar to Exodus 9:8-12". If the plague in Thoth is a disease (not poison) and is manufactured (and the story is fictional) then it meets the criteria. Do you mean that it is magical rather than a disease?
    – SkySpiral7
    Commented Feb 12 at 22:11
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    @SkySpiral7 I expect most people would agree that a divine plague would not have been created in a lab, and lab-created is specified by the asker. Commented Feb 13 at 1:55
  • @SkySpiral7 I assume what David means by "biblical" is that the story uses the word "plague", as do English translations of Exodus, to mean something chronic and troublesome, whereas OP wants specifically an infectious disease. (Sleep gas doesn't sound at all like the latter to me.) Commented Feb 13 at 21:06
  • From Bleiler's review the plague and the sleep gas seem to be two different things. "Being utterly ruthless, he releases plague among the Athenians, letting it be known that he can preserve a certain number of women from the plague by taking them to his city in Africa, where they will be honored." Sounds like an infectious disease to me but I haven't read the book. If you want to read it, it's available at Project Gutenberg and I suppose also the Internet Archive and Google Books.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 14 at 8:34
  • Taking a quick peek at the book, the plague seems to be a plague all right, but I don't know if it was manufactured.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 14 at 8:42
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Not sure if it perfectly fits your criteria, but you could find it interestingly related anyway.

In the 1887* illustrated sci-fi story La Guerre au 20ème siècle ("War in the 20th Century") by Albert Robida, an unidentified army tries to use land mines and shells loaded with various diseases against the French army. All of this is designed by doctors, chemists, and engineers.

However, the French destroy the "miasma reservoir" where the diseases are stored, before the mines and shells are used against them. As a consequence, the diseases leak and spread among the enemy. The mix of diseases creates a new, unknown disease called the "fièvre molineuse", certainly killing thousands of civilians and soldiers (but sparing the French).

At the end of the chapter, it is mentioned that doctors across Europe "grow" this new disease – to weaponize it I'd assume, as medical ethics does not seem to be a concern in this fictional universe.

Below is an illustration from the book, representing the inside of a fortified place where doctors, chemists, and engineers develop their biological warfare plan. We see a sort of small lab on the right, and some tanks just under the large cannon, labelled with various disease names, including measles, dysentery, typhus, and smallpox (later, the text mentions additional diseases like yellow fever and... odontalgia):

Interior view of the fort, p.16

Here is an illustration of the "réservoir à miasmes". In front of it, there are some doctors and engineers, manipulating a couple of flasks or vials:

Copy of p.17 of the story, where the "miasma reservoir" is illustrated, with 6 men in front of it - presumably 5 doctors and 1 soldier

And here is an illustration of the reservoir leaking after the French attack, with some smoke or vapor escaping from it, possibly some liquid too:

Copy of p.17 of the story, where we see the reservoir leaking after an explosion, with some smoke or vapor escaping from it, and possibly some liquid too. A dozen of soldiers around panic and fall on the ground.

It seems there's a 1998 translation of the story in English, but I couldn't find it online. You can find the original story in French on Gallica at the following address, with higher resolution images than those I shared above: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3120885 . The chapter where the weaponized diseases appear is pp.16-20.


* The Wikipedia article on this story mentions 1883 as a first publication date, but I did not verify the information. On the other hand, Gallica mentions 1887.

After re-reading the story, it seems that the author never explicitly states that people are dying from the diseases, he just mentions incapacitating the enemy immediately, and sending over 170,000 people in hospitals. However, given the fatality rate of the weaponized diseases (smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, etc.), undoubtfully a large proportion of people ending up in hospitals would die. The book is intended to be light-hearted and humorous, which could explain why the author seems to omit this question.

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Not an old book, but an outstanding and terrifying one: The Cobra Event by Richard Preston, who has written extensively about the non-fiction underpinnings of this book. He wrote it as a warning that the creation of a new plague need not be instigated by a state actor. Also might be in background of Asimov's Robot Series, specifically the ones with Elijah Baley and R.Daneel Olivaw - The Robots of Dawn, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The backstory is that people on earth must wear inserts in their noses to prevent catching some respiratory plague.

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    The goal of a [history-of] question is to find the earliest example of a given trope. As such, you shouldn't really post an answer if you know that the example you have in mind isn't the earliest one out there. In this case, a much earlier example was already posted. Commented Feb 12 at 16:57

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