By: Joshua Loper, Director DMHEF/DMM
On November the 19th, 2023, the Delaware Military Heritage and Education Foundation/Delaware Military Museum donated around 20 rolls of paper towels to the House Rabbit Society of Southeastern Pennsylvania-Delaware Chapter.
The museum made this donation to not only help the community and spread the holiday cheer, but also as a thank you to the descendants of some of the most interesting World War Two animal veterans. Most people have heard of pigeons flying messages, dogs guarding bases, and cats fighting rats for the United States Military... Many people have never heard of the huge, even war-winning contribution made in WW2 by rabbits.
The Rabbit Goes To War!
Rabbits are small, humble, and very loving creatures. They are indeed prey animals. They will not charge into the line of fire to try and save their handler, or soar through and artillery barrage to deliver a message. However, their service in World War 2 was indeed immensely important. in 1928 at St. Mary's Hospital (London, UK) Physician Alexandar Fleming accidentally discovered the new wounder drug penicillin. With the outbreak of the war the scientists from the United Kingdom pressed on. In 1941 penicillin was given to the United States and Canada to continue testing for the war effort. It was quickly found to be very effective at treating all sorts of infections and diseases. Treating battlefield wounds can be nasty with all the infections that come with them. Penicillin quickly became indispensable. In 1943 a toddler named Patricia had a blood born infection and her parents were told she had but seven hours to live. A newspaper reporter badgered by phone officials in the U.S. Government to release enough penicillin to try and treat little Paticia who was nearing the end. When the medicine was released and given to her, she started to recover in a few hours. This helped catapult the new Penicillin on the world stage. However, as with all medicines (especially back then) sometimes you get a bad batch.
Now enters the little heroes of our story. Some servicemen were having problems with their penicillin injections, and it turned out to be some bad batches. It was going to be in such high demand to help save lives in the war effort, penicillin was being churned out as fast as possible. It was the same for everything else needed for the war as well. The rabbits were given a small injection of the penicillin into their ears.
Animal testing is very controversial today, and many people have strong opinions about it. The Delaware Military Museum article does not look to support or condemn it. This article is simply here to report on our little, loving warrior rabbits, and their largely forgotten contribution to saving lives.
If you have ever had a pet rabbit, you know their ears are very important. Not only do they help rabbits with their balance, hear sounds, and communicate... They help rabbits with thermoregulation. The rabbits' ears are how rabbits regulate their body temperature. When they were given the small amount of penicillin it was injected into their ear. If it was a bad batch, their ear got a little warm. The same way we humans get a slight temperature if we have a small cold. Thus, for example, if rabbit No. 24 "Peter" got a warm ear, that injection came from batch No. 10031. Then batch No. 10031 of penicillin would be disposed of. This way saving wounded soldiers and civilians lives by not injecting already sick people with a large dose of tainted drugs. On D-Day in 1944 penicillin went ashore with our troops. "Over 100,000 or so soldiers received penicillin treatment in the European Theater of Combat Operations between D-Day and the final German surrender" according to the U.S. Government statistics. This does not even count the civilians, prisoners of war, and Pacific Teater of Operations veterans treated with this drug, made safe by our rabbit warriors. This statistic includes Director Loper's grandfather (30th Infantry Division, 120th Regiment) who was wounded 3 times in combat. One treatment of penicillin probably saving his life.
In the war effort to defeat the "Axis of Evil" in WW2 everyone contributed in their own way. Some fought on the combat fronts, some fought on the home front, and some went largely forgotten.
We at the Delaware Military Museum salute our warrior bunnies and thank them for their service.
Fun Fact: "The five American pharmaceutical companies that contributed to penicillin production research during WWII: Abbott Laboratories, Lederle Laboratories (now Pfizer, Inc.), Merck & Co., Inc., Chas. Pfizer & Co. Inc. (now Pfizer, Inc.) and E.R. Squibb & Sons (now Bristol-Myers Squibb Company)."
Abbot Laboratories Inc, Pfizer Inc, and Bristol-Myers Squibb Company are all incorporated in the State of Delaware.