Unexpected Guest

Yuliia Vereta

© Copyright 2019 by Yuliia Vereta


Photo of a chemistry lab.

The builders of empires always justified their actions by their beliefs that they and their cultures were superior to the cultures of those they conquered… believed in their superiority and strength, and that their actions were instruments of the divine order.”
Adam Jamrozik

Berlin, October 1905

The autumn was getting fierce. Extremely early this year. Everything in the city was soaked and wet. The streets were pierced by the cold wind that was bothering the leaves turning red and falling down onto watery roads and occasional tram rails. People were hiding in homes and shops warmed by the fireplace. Theater posters were unsticking and hanging down from the post. Ladies in elegant dresses were scurrying from their coaches to the small street cafes, holding umbrellas and jumping over the puddles. Berlin was breathing the fresh smell of the recent evening rain that made most people stay at home, baking buns with their grandchildren or play music in the living room.

Robert Koch, who was never entertained by piano talent or cooking skills of his wife was exactly where he felt he had to be, in his study in the Imperial Health Bureau, the building consisting of four stories of the wisest minds of the German Empire. He was sitting in the room next to his laboratory, behind the thick wooden door saying ‘Professor of Hygiene, Director of the Institute of Hygiene, Doctor Robert Koch.’ Next to the door stood the coat hanger with Koch’s black coat and a bowler hat, resting while he was as always busy.

Having inclined over his desk he was diligently scratching the paper, leaving on it dozens of lines of his fine handwriting. The caption said ‘The importance of improvement of sanitary facilities in the public buildings’. From time to time Koch brought his writing to rest, lifted the paper from the table, closer to the white dome lamp and reread everything that was on paper. Sometimes he frowned or thoughtfully stroked his beard and added some words or crossed some out and rewrote, and after pushing the oval glasses back to its place, went on writing.

The room was absolutely silent but for those scratching sounds he made when writing. Koch’s new study was a piece of art, every inch of it was a scientific sanctuary, filled with the best ideas of the epoch, the genius of the time. In the middle stood the massive wooden table with stacks of paper and a pile of finest books in bacteriology, half of them were written by Koch himself. Famous people, including politicians and doctors were watching him from the paintings hanging on the walls. Koch was paying his best attention to what he was writing, just like always.

Totally dedicating himself to work, Robert did not notice the vast shadow that appeared on the glass of his door, behind the door there stood a person that Koch would prefer to never meet in his life. But having such a great success in developing sciences and human knowledge as he did one usually does not have a choice. The shadow knocked the door and came in without waiting for invitation. Koch got distracted from his writing and looked at his late guest. It was a middle-aged man wearing the black uniform that looked way more serious than the police one. Koch pushed back in his chair and said:

Please take a seat. What can I do for you?’.
I believe we can omit the introduction as it is of no importance’, his voice was deep and calm. The face seemed to have no emotions at all.

Well, as you know, the Empire is proud about your discoveries in South Africa and India and your fascinating work on tuberculosis, rinderpest, malaria, plague and especially anthrax’, the man looked at all of those honors and medals resting on the walls around them and continued ‘and as soon as all of these were properly studied here, in German Empire, and are a very serious matters we feel the need to have the examples of those bacilli and tissues of infected animals as samples not only in the medical laboratories, but also… in the governmental ones. Especially the bacterium Bacillus anthracis
Aren’t the laboratories of the medical institute the governmental ones? Or do we understand the word ‘governmental’ in a different way?’, replied Koch.

They are governmental,’ the man’s voice turned impatient ‘I was trying to say we need all those samples in the military laboratories’.

And what made you come here and not just take them from the institute?’ Koch did not seem to be scared.

We need more than just samples of the bacteria. We need to perform the synthesis of the resilient bacteria spores that are able to survive for very long periods of time and in many different environments. In your recent experiment you isolated and grew Bacillus anthracis in pure culture and injected animals with the bacteria, we need the samples of these isolated and grown bacteria as we need to study how easily this disease can be transmitted.’

I am too old to believe in the tale that this is for scientific purposes only and for the good only’, Koch frowned.

What is good for the German Empire is good for you too. Think of everything you were given. If you refuse to do it, there will be someone else willing to take this … project and probably this room’.

Koch heavily sighed. In the deep of his heart he always knew that this day will come and he was always scared of it, but hoped that when it comes there will be others to lead the world in a brave new epoch.

The first deliberate uses of anthrax as an act of aggression happened during World War I, seven years after Robert Koch’s death. There is the evidence that the German army used anthrax to infect livestock and animal feed traded to the Allied Nations, using the world’s first biological weapon.
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