Veterinary Science and Infectious Plagues: A Q&A with Norman F. Cheville

We talked to Norman F. Cheville, the author of Pioneer Science and the Great Plagues: How Microbes, War, and Public Health Shaped Animal Health.

Pioneer Science and the Great Plagues covers a century of progress fighting infectious diseases and plagues, illuminating the important role of veterinary research and science.

Q: What was your impetus for writing this book and studying this subject?

Norman F. Cheville: A mystery existed about why America trailed Europe by a full century—from the 1760s to the 1860s—in building science-based veterinary colleges to educate for animal health care. Why? No historian had ever explained that. Turns out, veterinary colleges in Europe has been stimulated by rampant infectious disease, many of them zoonoses—diseases transmissible from animals to humans. Yet in North America, there was a century-long delay. Did it arise from public ignorance of microbes, from national energies miss-directed to war, or from the fraudulent veterinarians working in rural frontiers? There had to be a story there.

Then a celebratory editorial in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association had things backwards; an employee of the National Library of Medicine had written that medicine in North America had been the model for veterinary education. The writer had ignored not only the rich practical science culture but also the difficult but creative contributions to veterinary science in rural America and Canada. In seeking the historical facts, it appeared that much of the history of veterinary medicine has been ignored. In the beginning, I wanted to correct that and to include the important seminal contributions of pioneering scientists who I believed had been left out in the story, e.g., Heinrich Janssen Detmers and Rush Shippen Huidekoper. In progressing, a remarkable historical tableau emerged that drove the remainder of the book on how microbes, war, and public health had changed animal health care in North America.


Q: When you started writing this project you may not have expected it to be as topical as it now is. What are some of the most striking parallels between the plagues you talk about in the book and the pandemic we’re facing today?

Cheville: From the start, it was clear that the great plagues occurred in cycles that were driven by national economies, idiosyncrasies of political cultures, and wars. It was also soon clear that in responding to pandemics, the answers provided by science had to be translated into action – a translation that required journalists, informed politicians, and responsible pharmaceutical business; it has been the task of these groups to lead the public into acceptance of social behavior change including use of drugs and vaccines. Early successful scientists had been connected to some form of public information where the press, politicians, and heads of state drove effective actions. At the beginning of the era, the political talents of Jenner (smallpox), Pasteur (fowl cholera, anthrax, and rabies), Koch (tuberculosis), and Virchow (trichinosis) convinced the public and had been the key to their successes. In each succeeding plague cycle, some scientist or science group appeared to fulfill that mission. Virchow solved the problem of trichinosis in pigs in Germany by providing the science behind trichinosis in pork and the on-farm methods to prevent it; he had connections with the Reichstag to implement regulations and laws to mandate action. In America, unlike our early response to the COVID-19 disaster, some plagues led to effective responses. In the first decade of the 20th century food safety for humans appeared because of a scientist, a journalist, and a Congress who understood their responsibility to establish the Food and Drug Administration. For animals of that decade, scientists provided the vaccination method for the disastrous pandemic of hog cholera, the federal government, the research impetus, and the state legislatures (most of them at least) provided the funds and production facilities to stop the disease. Succeeding pandemics of influenza, poliomyelitis, and the prion diseases followed the same pattern. The importance of all this is that when journalists, legislators, or heads of state fail in this scheme, disaster ensues.

What emerged in writing this book was that distortion of veterinary science and education was occurring from two idiosyncrasies of culture – disbelief in science and distrust of government. Spreading misinformation and downright lies, people in these misinformation cults spawned scientology, creationism, anti-vaccination movements, astrology, and other anti-science scams. All of these scalawags were having destructive impacts on science in general and on veterinary medicine in particular. There were other bogeymen – fraudulent veterinarians, scientists that published fake data, dishonest entrepreneurs, and other latter-day snake oil salesmen. The anti-science stance of a disturbing percentage of the public arises from avoiding logic and rational analysis in solving what is basically a science problem. Underlying much of this mischief are the prejudices of the more misinformed segments of human cults of various kinds.

All of this is part of a scary anti-science and anti-government philosophy that has been growing since the 1960s and has been severely exacerbated by the internet and its lack of control.  Failure of the federal government to take command of this issue has allowed COVID-19 to spread throughout the nation before serious efforts of mitigation were finally begun. This is in striking contrast to the outbreak of smallpox in New York City at the end of World War II; then the nation was educated by the presidents, governors, mayors and public health departments; the public was responsive to the needed behaviors, and together acted immediately to prevent spread, vaccinate the population, and track spreaders. Because of our anti-science and anti-authoritarian beliefs (that are now being disguised at some loopy faux patriotism), we have become victims of pandemic viruses. It will get worse unless we correct this nonsense.

Q: As you put it, disbelief in science and distrust in government may be the two largest impediments to the advancements you outline in the book. From the 1860s to now, what do you think makes these so pervasive?

Cheville: There are several factors, the most important of which seems to be the tone set by those in charge. Presidents, state governors, and local leaders must take the steps and walk the walk of responsibility to keep the public informed and educated about the steps that must be taken: surveillance of global infections, monitoring for spread, social behavioral changes that prevent spread, and scientific research that expands production of vaccines and drugs. This often involved subtle communications and seeing that the public is informed correctly. A lethal move is the political re-direction or re-interpretation of science data. In recent times there is the need to regulate the internet, making it conform to public standards of truth – just as newspapers were forced to do in the early 20th century. Today, this is the major route for misinformation and anti-science cults to spread fake news. There is a persistent phony mentality that drives many of these cults, most based upon ignorance and expediencies of money, land, and material things that override the needs for the public good. These scams can only persist when there are deficits in public education. Any lack of a rigorous and demanding educational curriculum for teaching civics, government, science, and propaganda analysis in our primary and secondary schools provides fertile soil for cults.


Q: You write at the start of the preface of the book, “Animal health care in North America evolved from farriers and itinerant cow leeches to science-based veterinary medicine in one century, from 1860 to 1960.” When doing your research, what struck you most about the advancement of this era?

Cheville: It was a time when social responsibility moved to regulate the expanding economy. Reforms of the early 20th century regulated dangerous business habits that had spread not only plagues of infectious diseases but episodes of food adulteration and uncontrolled toxic disposals. These reforms gave us the safe nation in which we now live. The demands of regulated capitalism was co-incident with societal reform that promoted education and science. It was a time of public acceptance of science. There was less opportunity for those struggling with personality disorders/mental illness to seriously harm society.


Q: You end the book with an epilogue and changes since 1960 with emphasis on a growth in public distrust; how about the future?

Cheville: Things may seem dark at the moment, but there is hope. It takes time, but we will correct our mistakes through education and correction of misinformation, and by regulating the unrestricted falsification of public information. As to Veterinary Medicine and animal health care, these changes have been maintained. The book documents a striking and direct impact of change: the complete reversal in the acceptance of women as veterinary scientists. Not permitted to study for the profession in early times, women veterinary graduates exploded after World War II from near 0 in 1960 to nearly 90% in 2000. This remarkable change doubled the intellectual power of the profession. The change was coincident with an emerging spiritual aura of empathy and responsibility – an understanding of how animal behavior and human-animal connections change when biology goes awry. For the veterinarian, professional responsibilities expanded. One of the remarkable books of the period was James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. It represented the era; scratch away the beautiful Yorkshire dales, the funny humanistic stories, and the cleverness of the writing, the reader is still left with a continuing theme of empathy of the human-animal bond – dealing with animal cruelty in a global production system, with the ecologic health of free-ranging terrestrial mammals in the wild, with dolphins and fish that must be saved from toxic tides in oceanic environments, and of protecting wild birds from suffering infections, starvation and lead poisoning along their intercontinental flyways. Knowledge and skill dedicated to healing animals of many species in a variety of environmental settings provided an unspoken but protective spiritual bond that leads to public trust.

Thank you to Norman! If you would like to know more about this book you can order your own copy or request it from your local library.

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