A few weeks ago, I discovered that the National Museum of American History has a horse halter in its collection. The halter belonged to a horse named First Flight, and after browsing the catalog entry, I was stunned to discover how horses have helped save thousands of lives.
First Flight’s story is remarkable: he was bred to be a racehorse, but doesn’t appear to have ever raced (I couldn’t find him listed in any race records in the NSLM collection) and then went into service as a caisson horse in military funerals at Arlington National Ceremony. It appears that large crowds didn’t agree with him, and we was soon reassigned for being too skittish. In 1978, First Flight went to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland where he became a “living factory” to produce botulism antitoxin.
Botulism is one of the most potent natural toxins, produced by a variety of strains of botulinum bacteria. First Flight was infected with each strain in succession, and as his immune system produced antibodies, his blood could be harvested to produce an effective remedy to botulism. First Flight’s serum was stockpiled during the Gulf War to protect against biological attacks using botulinum. Between Fort Detrick and a long stay at the University of Minnesota, First Flight gave over 16,000 liters of blood for botulism antitoxin.
The practice of using horses to derive antitoxin serum dates back to the 19th Century, and has been used to combat rabies, tetanus, and diphtheria. The innovation of serum treatment by Emil Adolf von Behring in 1890 was a huge step toward curing diphtheria and thousands of lives were saved. Horses, due to their hardiness and size, were ideal candidates for serum production. Unfortunately, the new treatment brought its own dangers.
One of the early equine stars of diphtheria serum production was Jim, a former milk wagon horse who produced 30 quarts of antitoxin over his career. In 1901, he showed signs of tetanus and was put down, but mislabeled antitoxin and poor record-keeping allowed tainted serum to be distributed to children, resulting in 13 deaths. The tragedy was a major catalyst behind passage of the Biologics Control Act in 1902, the first broad U. S. regulation of pharmaceuticals. The precedent led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration in 1906.
Production of antitoxin serum is more than a little unusual today. But it’s another fascinating way that horses have been instrumental to human progress over the years.
John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail