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CMAJ - July 14, 1998JAMC - le 14 juillet

Thucydides' syndrome

CMAJ 1998;159:21

See also:
The disease described by Dr. John Hoey in his article "Anthrax" (CMAJ 1998;158[5]:633 [full text]) is indeed an old disease, appearing in chapter 9 of Exodus as the fifth and sixth plagues of Egypt and in Virgil's third Georgic as the murrain of Noricum.1

Epidemic inhalational anthrax on a scale unknown before or since may well have been the cause of one of medical history's greatest conundrums, the plague of Athens, also known as Thucydides' syndrome, a serious infectious disease that ravaged the Athenians during the Peloponnesian war between 430 and 427 BC.2 Surprisingly, even though Thucydides left an excellent description of the disease's epidemiology and clinical features,3 there has never been agreement on the precise nature of the illness that so weakened a nation that the course of geopolitical history was irrevocably changed.

The 1979 epidemic of inhalational anthrax in Sverdlovsk offers excellent confirmation that such events are indeed possible, albeit on a much smaller scale, and provides strong, if somewhat circumstantial, support for the thesis that Thucydides' syndrome was in fact inhalational anthrax.

James McSherry, MB, ChB
Professor of Family Medicine
University of Western Ontario
London, Ont.


  1. Christie AB. Clinical aspects of anthrax. Postgrad Med J 1973;49:565-70.
  2. McSherry JA, Kilpatrick R. The plague of Athens. J R Soc Med 1982;85:713.
  3. Thucydides. History of the Peloponesian war. Warner R, translator. London: Penguin Books; 1954.

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