In early 1922, federal, state and local officials battling the contagion of Texas tick fever had assigned Charles Jeffrey and his co-worker Lee Harper with the tough task of enforcing a livestock quarantine and cattle tick eradication program in rural Independence County. As they and their horses hiked along a dirt road early one March morning to supervise a mandatory pesticide dipping on Hutchinson Mountain, a hidden assassin fired a shotgun from the woods, killing Jeffrey and wounding Harper in the arm. Over the next couple of weeks, as authorities rounded up suspects, defiant nightriders in the area dynamited dipping vats and torched barns to express their vehement opposition to the quarantine order and eradication program. Jeffrey’s murder, which remains an unsolved case to this day, was part of a broader “Tick War” that erupted throughout the South as many locals, panged by the economic costs, inconveniences and a populist antipathy toward government elites, resisted federal and state efforts to halt the spread of the disease. As horrific and violent as some opponents became in Independence County and a handful of other extreme cases, much of the local resistance to the federal quarantine and tick eradication program was actually quite rational.
There have been plenty of hot takes over the last few weeks comparing the COVID-19 outbreak to the Great Influenza of 1918 and other major epidemics in history. But the often overlooked efforts in the United States to eradicate contagious animal-borne diseases such as Texas fever and bovine tuberculosis during the late 19th and early 20th centuries offer just as compelling historical insights for our current situation. In their 2015 book “Arresting Contagion: Science, Policy, and Conflicts over Animal Disease Control,” economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode recount Congress’ creation of the Bureau of Animal Industry within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1884 and how its numerous wars against animal and human diseases “evolved to overcome great obstacles, including ignorance, rampant disease denialism, constitutional impediments, knotty jurisdictional conflicts, and strong grassroots resistance.” Despite great impediments, the BAI proved remarkably effective and played a pioneering role in making the United States “a world leader in controlling contagious animal diseases” in the early 20th century. Even so, it certainly had its problems, and its disease-control measures contributed to significant socioeconomic inequities in the process, further fueling the intensity of local resistance.
Led by a capable, professional cadre of veterinarians and other scientists, the BAI made remarkable progress in understanding, controlling and eliminating a host of contagious diseases. It discovered Salmonella (named for the agency’s founding director, veterinary scientist Daniel Salmon), made the first-ever use of an artificially heat-killed culture for vaccine production, identified the hookworm parasite that was ravaging Southern society, and scientifically proved that an arthropod vector (the cattle tick) transmitted a microorganism that was responsible for spreading Texas fever. Its work on vector-borne Texas fever, moreover, advanced the science of and future breakthroughs in combating malaria, yellow fever, typhus and African sleeping sickness, among other diseases. Between the 1890s and the end of World War II, the BAI’s campaigns wiped out seven major diseases in the United States: contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, fowl plague, foot-and-mouth disease, glanders, bovine tuberculosis, dourine fever and Texas fever. The agency’s work to eradicate animal contagions mutually benefited both veterinary medicine and human health care. The eradication in 1940 of bovine tuberculosis, which passed to humans through milk, for instance, saved not only thousands of cows but also roughly 25,000 people a year from deaths related to the disease.
Efforts to control and exterminate contagious animal diseases exposed the gross inadequacies of individualism, localism, volunteerism and market-based solutions. “A laissez-faire regime relying on the tort system and local police powers could not protect life and property against animal contagions,” Olmstead and Rhode write. “Contrary to popular assertions, local representatives were not more efficient managers than far-away federal bureaucrats when it came to arresting livestock contagions.” Noncompliance and outright resistance to federal quarantine measures and eradication programs were fierce, as opponents determined that policies “ran counter to their own interests or ideology.” The issue required collective and concerted leadership and action — at times even coercion — at the national level, the likes of which had never been known in the United States outside of war. Congress empowered the animal health agency “with authority to impose domestic and international quarantines, to advance scientific knowledge, and to conduct eradication campaigns within states.” While most historians usually focus on the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Meat Inspection Act of 1891, and a slew of congressional legislation during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, the urgency to combat livestock contagions and the creation of the BAI in 1884 “represented a landmark in the history of federal regulation and the rise of science policy” and has a “better claim to represent the birth of significant federal economic regulation” in the United States.
Though the BAI’s “successes have led later generations to take these accomplishments for granted and to forget the scientific and political challenges that had to be overcome,” Olmstead and Rhode contend that “few nations were as successful as the United States in converting science into effective public policies to control animal contagions” in the early 20th century. The agency’s record in combating contagious diseases, their research concludes, proved that “successful large-scale government interventions were possible,” that “preparation was crucial,” that “leadership mattered,” and that “incentives mattered” for encouraging the cooperation and compliance of everyday citizens. The BAI’s war on contagions is “a story of achievements that are now largely taken for granted.”
Notwithstanding the BAI’s stellar contributions to scientific progress and disease control in the United States that we take for granted today, the history of its eradication efforts also underscores — in a very timely manner for our own COVID-19 situation — the essential need for rigorous accountability and oversight at the federal level in implementing programs and disbursing government assistance. This is necessary to ensure a fairer and more equitable distribution of both burden sharing and much needed aid, which is not only socially responsible but also important for incentivizing cooperation and minimizing noncompliance. The BAI’s disease-control campaigns often fell short on these fronts, especially when it went too far in compromising with and delegating authority to corporate interests and political elites at the state and local levels.
The BAI’s work to control Texas fever by eradicating cattle ticks in the Southern states was a case in point. The agency issued an order in 1891 to quarantine cattle in the South to protect northern stockyards from the spread of the tick-borne disease, which effectively placed a painful embargo on Southern cattlemen and stock dealers. Southern business interests and political leaders, including Arkansas’s U.S. Sen. James Berry, were outraged initially. But the lure of federal dollars for agricultural economic development had converted them into strong supporters of the BAI’s efforts by 1906, when Congress appropriated monies to eradicate ticks and improve the cattle industry in the South. At least in part to make the program more politically palatable to powerful Southern interests, the BAI surrendered most coordination and oversight to local officials and the demands of large-scale cattle growers. The consequences were often disastrous. Poorer and smaller cattle growers, whose native “scrub” cows proved far less vulnerable to the symptoms of Texas fever than the fancier pure-breeds raised by better-off producers, perceived the tick eradication campaign as little more than a corrupt scheme engineered by wealthier and privileged agriculturalists and their bought-and-paid-for politicians to feather their own nests. Old populists like Tom Watson of Georgia railed against the unfairness of the tick eradication campaign, as did the Working Class Union and many agrarian socialists. Noncompliance among poorer, working-class farmers was rampant, and a handful even resorted to violent resistance to such “injustice.” One farmer in Stone County cussedly remarked that “This will be a lonesome old place to live when the tick eradicators get all the … ticks eradicated … . The one Tick they are after is a big round tick. I call it a Dollar … The poor we have with us always.”
BAI officials typically attributed such resistance to disease-control measures to plain ignorance, back-country stubbornness and an irrational opposition to science in rural communities. These assertions weren’t entirely unfounded, to be sure, but there were also real, rational reasons for defiance at play. Larger landowners and cattle growers did, indeed, stand to gain the most economically from the program’s greater protection of their pure-bred livestock in the first place, and most of the federal financial assistance offered by the BAI tended to flow to them, instead of poorer and smaller farmers who needed the aid and incentives most. The latter lacked the necessary labor, capital and farm infrastructures to feasibly manage the quarantine, conduct mandatory cattle dippings in arsenic-based pesticides every two weeks, and otherwise comply with the order. Moreover, to raise the required revenue for the BAI’s matching federal grants, state and local officials in Arkansas opted to impose a regressive flat tax on each cow, burdening smaller, cash-strapped farmers much more than the larger, wealthier cattlemen who felt that the benefits of the tax far outweighed the expense to their own business operations. Bigger operators within the cattle industry also sought to use the situation to consolidate greater market share by pushing harder to close the open range or “commons,” where livestock foraged and roamed unrestrained (and carried ticks) across unfenced property boundaries. Closing the open range and requiring fences to raise livestock only on owned or leased property promised to drive thousands of small producers with little or no land out of the business altogether. The urgency to control the disease, then, unintentionally helped to widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
Olmstead and Rhode remind us of the inevitability that “all policy innovations have involved winners and losers.” But learning from the successes and failures of the past should help us, even in moments of crisis like our own, to construct and manage policies that produce far more winning and much less losing than was true for those who came before us.
As was the case in the BAI’s fight against animal-borne contagions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, future historians will look back on the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and determine that the times needed “leaders who perceived the seriousness of the disease threats and designed bold and pragmatic policies to promote effective collective action.” Early on, we’ve seen a dearth of these qualities at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but it’s hoped wiser heads of science- and humanitarian-based leadership can right the ship and help write the next chapter of progress in the long war to “arrest contagion”— and do so in a way that works more equitably for people across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Blake Perkins is associate professor of history at Williams Baptist University and the author of “Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks” (University of Illinois Press, 2017).