Strange Disease: Living through a Pandemic as a Historian of Disease

Contributing Editor Kerri Clement reflects on living through a pandemic as a historian of disease.

An evening during pandemic in Montana, March 2020. Photograph by author.

 

 

In 1959, veterinarian Dr. J.W. Safford wrote to his fellow members of the Montana Livestock Sanitary Board:

“I would like to interject a personal comment. If political expediency decides disease-control procedures, ignoring the scientific findings of the facts, it will be the most costly thing that can happen to the livestock industry… there appears to be a trend that party lines will decide disease-control procedures.”[1]

Dr. Safford wrote this in reference to state funding for brucellosis vaccines and testing, yet, when I read it several weeks ago it struck a chord with me. I felt a surreal jolt, as I had just finished listening to Dr. Colleen Kraft on the podcast This Podcast Will Kill You, who expressed a similar sentiment about COVID-19. Even though these doctors were separated by space, time, and specialties, they expressed similar concern over party politics impeding disease control efforts.

I ran across Dr. Safford’s concerns because my research involves the history of disease and animals in Montana borderlands. Over the last several months, I have been grappling with some tensions related to researching the history of disease and living through a pandemic in real time. This pandemic has allowed me to reflect on illusions of control and how our entire lives can change overnight—or something along those lines.[2] I research a disease caused by a bacterium—Brucella—that infects more-than-human mammals and humans. [3] The disease likely evolved in a species like wild sheep then spread to domesticated animals, and later spilled over into the human population sometime before the late bronze age.[4] Strains of the Brucella bacterium have lurked in our milk and meat ever since. Often the cause of “abortion storms,” when entire herds of cattle or other ungulates would spontaneously abort their fetuses, Brucella causes vague flu-like illness in humans, as well as miscarriages, skeletal issues, and, rarely, death. But emerging western science did not acknowledge that Brucella—or Bang’s—was capable of infecting humans as germ theory took off in the nineteenth century. What we now call brucellosis (the disease caused by Brucella) was actually considered two separate diseases—one animal and one human—until 1918, when Alice Evans, a researcher at the now little-known federal agency Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), claimed that the disease in humans and animals was one and the same.[5] Her discovery helped to jumpstart brucellosis control efforts in the name of public health by the BAI, state veterinary officials, and livestock producers, which would ramp up over the course of the twentieth century.

By National Photo Company Collection, restored by Adam Cuerden—This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID npcc.30943. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49960596

Despite these efforts, brucellosis continues to haunt Montana’s borderlands, popping up in domestic herds every couple of years and circulating through wild bison and (especially) elk herds. I study how state and federal policies toward brucellosis fluctuated over time in the Montana borderlands and Yellowstone National Park during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My research concentrates specifically on the consequences of these fluctuating policies on Indigenous peoples and animals. This means I spend a lot of time reading historical veterinarian reports, scientific papers on brucellosis, management meeting minutes, newspaper articles, and extension agent reports (to name a few), to try to find out how historical humans and animals interacted with the disease in Montana and Yellowstone. I truly enjoy this work—I get to read letters from ranchers in the 1920s who would describe in gory and lurid details mysterious animal illnesses—in addition to trying to figure out how we got where we did in one of the most contentious issues in the Greater Yellowstone borderlands.[6]

Before COVID-19 hit, however, I often had to spend time in grants and in conversations explaining why disease matters in history. I do not have to do that anymore. I feel guilty admitting this, but in a way, it’s a relief not to have to argue—sometimes quite forcefully—that microbes can drastically alter our world in ways we cannot anticipate, especially to audiences that don’t agree or who think politics and economics are more important. While those factors are significant, however, more-than-human entities, like animals and microbes, can effect large-scale historical change as well. Those conversations are not happening anymore.

Excerpt from Montana Livestock Sanitary Board Secretary, “Report to the Montana Livestock Sanitary Board” (Helena, Montana, 1937), Montana Historical Society.

Instead, I am staring at alarmingly parallel patterns emerging between voices in the historical record, like that of Dr. Safford’s, and my daily podcasts. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, to hear language such as “party lines will decide disease-control procedures” repeated knowing that the issues are hardly ever resolved. It’s even more unnerving knowing that there are few success stories in disease history.

“Hold on a second!” I can hear the cacophony of voices rising in volume to protest my statement. “But bovine tuberculosis programs,” “Kerri—what about polio,” or “SMALLPOX!” Yes, those examples are not necessarily wrong. Bovine tuberculosis has been mostly removed in U.S. cattle populations, polio vaccines helped to eliminate U.S. community spread of the disease, and smallpox was eradicated from global human populations. But those statements hide the extreme maneuvering and compromises between historical actors like government officials, livestock producers, public health officials, and NGOs to ever even come close to halting those contagions. These hidden fights between scientists and governments, between local and national, between businesses and governments to achieve progress in disease control and eradication are more complex and nuanced than is often acknowledged in discussions about policy. Even defining progress (Is simple control progress? Or eradication? In what populations? Where?) is in and of itself a point of legitimate contention. We know this now, on a visceral level. We see it when we turn on the news, open Facebook, or hit play on a podcast.

Having that history in the back my mind when I am feeding my Covi(d)ctory sourdough and listening to the news can be a lot. It is discouraging at best, and overwhelming at worst. It’s especially difficult knowing that there are no quick fixes and that we will be dealing with the ramifications of this for decades to come, even though we probably will rush to forget about this time. Furthermore, one of the issues that has been weighing heavily on my mind lately is the fact that even though microbes don’t discriminate, in a sense they do because of social and economic inequalities.

Socio-economic factors have profound influence on how this disease “plays out,” although I do not think the game is over. Especially in our late-stage capitalist, settler colonial society, there are deep-set tendencies to repeat entrenched inequalities based on race, class, gender, culture, geographic location, etc. The Navajo nation’s current fight against COVID-19 is a striking example. There are others. These microbes’ influence is not felt equally across society. The socio-economic framework in which we live has profound and enduring consequences, from how and where we conduct research, to standards and administration of care, to whether or not someone has clean water to wash their hands.

Suffice to say, being a disease historian during a pandemic is also highly motivating. It reaffirms everything that I knew before this happened: more-than-human entities, like parasitic microbes, matter to history and can change it. And even though the road forward is fraught with human political maneuvering on party lines, studying what has happened in the past relative to microbes will, in and of itself, help to shed light on how we as a species and as societies interact with microbes. We just might not always like what that history tells us. After all, “political expediency” exists. Oh, and the issue that Dr. Safford was referencing in 1959? It was an amendment to a Montana State Senate bill to provide more funding for brucellosis tests and vaccines. It was voted down in committee.

If you are still interested in disease history after all that, here are some sources I highly recommend:

Articles:

Books:

Podcast:

– This Podcast Will Kill You

Threshhold, Season 1


[1] J.W. Safford, “Letter to Members of Livestock Sanitary Board Re: Legislative Session,” February 9, 1959, Montana Livestock Sanitary Records, Montana Historical Society.

[2] This feeling of surreality is one that I first read about in Marc Bloc’s book, Strange Defeat, in which he reflected on the surreal feeling of being a historian and watching the Nazis overtake France. They subsequently executed Bloc. See https://wwnorton.com/books/Strange-Defeat/

[3] I use the phrase “more-than-human” based on the work of Critical Indigenous Studies scholars who argue for a rethinking of the relationships between humans and other species in terms of relationality. This framework is in opposition to a Euro-western thinking based in hierarchical philosophies. For more information see Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: Univ. Of Minnesota Press, 2017), kindle location 193; Kim TallBear, “Why Interspecies Thinking Needs Indigenous Standpoints — Cultural Anthropology,” Cultural Anthropology, accessed January 4, 2019, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/260-why-interspecies-thinking-needs-indigenous-standpoints; and Zoe Todd, “Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 43 (March 2017): 102–7.

[4] R. D’anastasio et al., “Origin, Evolution and Paleoepidemiology of Brucellosis,” Epidemiology & Infection 139, no. 1 (January 2011): 149–56, https://doi.org/10.1017/S095026881000097X; and Amr El-Sayed and Walid Awad, “Brucellosis: Evolution and Expected Comeback,” International Journal of Veterinary Science and Medicine 6 (January 1, 2018): S31–35, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijvsm.2018.01.008.

[5] Alice C. Evans, “Further Studies on Bacterium Abortus and Related Bacteria: II. A Comparison of Bacterium Abortus with Bacterium Bronchisepticus and with the Organism Which Causes Malta Fever,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 22, no. 6 (1918): 580–93.

[6] For a great overview of the controversy surrounding brucellosis, I highly recommend Amy Martin’s work in Threshold: season 1 podcast. https://www.thresholdpodcast.org/season01

 

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