With summer in full swing, mosquitoes are biting, and with every bite comes the possibility of disease. Nowadays our concerns focus on Zika and West Nile viruses, transmitted by different species of mosquito. As recently as the 1930s, however, the most ravaging mosquito-borne disease in the American South was malaria–still one of the most epidemic infectious diseases in the Southern Hemisphere.
For a region dependent on agriculture and a workforce necessarily exposed to flying pests outdoors, the costs of malaria were high in both human and economic terms. Children missed school, dragging down their academic achievement and future prospects. Farm workers missed days of labor, reducing their income and their families’ well-being. Large-scale employers often hired twice the number of necessary workers, anticipating significant absenteeism.
In Baker County, Georgia, Coca-Cola magnate and Emory philanthropist Robert Woodruff saw the devastating impact of the disease on the men and women who lived around his Ichauway Plantation. He offered to establish a research center to study the spread and potential containment of the disease, and with the help of Emory administrators and physicians, a field station was opened in 1939. This field station, which operated until 1957, arguably was the seed from which both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rollins School of Public Health would spring. Sean Suarez has told the story in Southern Spaces with the help of archives from the Stuart A. Rose Library.
Photos in the Rose Library photograph collection add richness and humanity to the tale.
During World War II, as U.S. military personnel were deployed to North Africa and the South Pacific–regions where malaria posed a significant threat to military effectiveness–the federal government established the Office of Malaria in War Areas in Atlanta to intensify the kind of work going on at Ichauway. After the war, this office would become the Communicable Disease Center–now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which moved next door to the Emory campus with the help of Robert Woodruff. In time, collaborations between the Emory School of Medicine and the CDC would lead to the founding of one of the top schools of public health in the United States, the Rollins School of Public Health, named for one of the great families of Emory philanthropists.