Vial, Botulism Anti-Toxin

Description (Brief)
First Flight was a thoroughbred horse that was transformed by scientists into a living factory to produce botulism antitoxin from the late 1970s through the 1990s.
Originally a race horse, First Flight later worked as a caisson horse in military funerals at Arlington National Ceremony. After serving for a time in this capacity, he was found to be too skittish. In 1978, at the age of 10 years, First Flight was transferred to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Scientists at USAMRIID undertake defense research against biological weapons, and while there First Flight participated in efforts to produce a countermeasure against attack with botulinum toxin. As the most powerful natural poison known to exist, botulinum represents one of the greatest threats for biological warfare. Produced by the bacteria Clostradium botulinum, the toxin is responsible for botulism, a disease which results in paralysis and often death if not treated. (The powers of botulinum are also put to work in the popular drug Botox, which, when injected, reduces the appearance of wrinkles by paralyzing facial muscles.)
Researchers harnessed the power of First Flight’s immune system to produce the antitoxin. They injected him with altered less-toxic forms of the botulinum toxin in order to induce his body to produce antibodies against the attack. Antibodies are small, disease-specific proteins the body produces in order to recognize and help fight invading infectious agents. After First Flight produced sufficient botulinum antibodies to protect himself, scientists injected him with the real toxin, which boosted his production of antibodies even further.
First Flight was then carefully bled to obtain the antibodies from his blood. These antibodies, contained in his blood plasma, made up the key ingredient in antitoxin serum. Once purified, the serum could be injected into humans suffering from botulism in order to neutralize the effects of the botulinum toxin. This form of treatment, known as serum therapy, has been practiced since the late 19th century, when it was important in the fight against rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, and other illnesses.
In 1980 First Flight moved to a new home at the University of Minnesota Medical School, which specialized in harvesting horse antibodies. Nearly 16,000 liters of blood were removed from First Flight during his time at Minnesota, and he became the nation’s sole source of antitoxin against all seven forms of botulinum toxin. With the start of the Gulf War in 1991, First Flight’s antitoxin was shipped to Saudi Arabia to be at hand should Saddam Hussein order the use of botulinum toxin to attack U.S. troops. Thankfully, the serum did not need to be used.
First Flight eventually retired from service and returned to Fort Detrick, where he died at age 31 in his paddock on May 17, 1999, of natural causes.
Accession File
“Race for a Remedy.” Crowley, Carolyn. Smithsonian Magazine. December 2000.
“Botulinum Toxin (Botulism) Fact Sheet.” University of Pittsburg Medical Center for Health Security.
Currently not on view
Object Name
vial, botulism anti-toxin
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
glass (overall material)
overall: 6 cm x 2.9 cm; 2 3/8 in x 1 5/32 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Health & Medicine
Science & Mathematics
Biotechnology and Genetics
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Biological Sciences
Biotechnology and Genetics
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

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