2nd November 1923. Virus.

In the beginning was Murrain, literally meaning death, which goes back to the Old Testament 5th Plague of Egypt. It was an umbrella term for infectious diseases of cattle, including Rinderpest, foot and mouth and anthrax.(1)

It appears that Rinderpest (RPv) and Measles (MEv) diverged between the 11th and 12th centuries. The growth of these viruses came with the domestication of cattle 10,000 years ago and the consequent growth and concentration in human population, factors which enabled epidemics in both cattle and human populations to take root.

Rinderpest-2 Image. Pirbright Institute.

Rinderpest-2 Image. Pirbright Institute.


Down the centuries Murrain, which included Foot and Mouth, was endemic and slaughter, compensation and movement-control were advocated and embodied in the Cattle Diseases Prevention Act of 1866.

The only exception to the policy of slaughtering since 1878 was the outbreak Today in 1923 of Foot and Mouth which was diagnosed on the estate of the Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall in Cheshire.

The duke told the Ministry of Agriculture that he was opposed to slaughter as his cattle were almost isolated because so many of the surrounding farms had seen their stock slaughtered. The Ministry agreed to let the Duke treat his stock provided he paid all the losses and expenses. His farm  was isolated until June 1924.

Cattle disease has been endemic down the ages. In 1348 The Chronicon Henrici Knighton recorded: ‘There was a great murrain of sheep everywhere in the realm, so that in one place more than 5000 died in a single pasture… they perished in unaccounted numbers for lack of shepherds [there was the black death at the time].

The outbreak of Rinderpest was recorded on a column erected at Mucklestone, Staffordshire: ‘In this ground are buried 40 head of cattle which died in the murrain in the months of December 1865 and January 1866’.

Nearby Cheshire lost up to two-thirds of its stock and in the outbreak most of the London cows kept singly in that urban situation, perished in the cattle plague.

The only controls for Murrain in days past were gunpowder, brimstone and pitch at that time, the only disinfectants.

It was the English veterinary scientist Walter Plowright who produced the first tissue culture vaccine (TCRV) a key element in the elimination of Rinderpest world wide, the first animal disease to be eradicated. Plowright won The World Food Prize in 1999.(2)

Rinderpest and the human smallpox are the only infectious diseases to have been eradicated from the world. In the meantime humans are still exposed to measles, anthrax and can in extreme cases contract foot and mouth and glanders in the right conditions.

Scientists have said the eradication of measles will be more difficult and even then it could open a niche for other viruses.

On a sombre note in World War II Britain aware of biological warfare, was developing all the above diseases and many more, for possible retaliation against Germany who was similarly involved. Luckily these deadly viruses were never used.

(1) The first written report of Rinderpest inoculation appeared in letter T.S. in November 1754 in the Gentleman’s Magazine.

(2) Plowright 20.7.1923-19.2.2010 was born in Holbeach, Lincolnshire.


theguardian.com/secret-biological-warfare. Bowcott and Evans.16.5.2010.

thetelegraph.co.uk/Old Cowman saves Duke’s Herd. Charles Clover. 21.3.2001.


ncbi.nim.nih.gov.animal viruses.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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