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Set of nested brass weights, Europe, 1601-1700

Decorated with horses and aquatic animals, these brass weights (weighing more than 15 kg in total) were used to weigh sheep’s wool – a very valuable commodity in the 1600s. Shearing and spinning wool was not without its health hazards. A type of anthrax that affected the lungs was transmitted to humans from the wool of infected sheep and became known as Wool Sorters Disease. The brass weights are pictured here with another set of nested weights (A5942).

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Glossary: wool sorter's disease

A pulmonary form of anthrax that results from the inhalation of spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis in the wool of contaminated sheep.

Glossary: weights

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Glossary: anthrax

A disease found in humans and other animals. It can be transmitted to humans through contact with animal hide or excrement. In humans it attacks the lungs (causing pneumonia) or the skin (producing skin ulcers). It can be fatal, but is treatable by penicillin.