DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
U.S. Typhus Commission
United States of America Typhus Commission (USATC)
Soldiers have enough of a battle fighting enemies they can see, but during World War II, an unseen foe plagued many. The frequent movement of troops and specific types of botanical environments led to a rapid spread of Typhus – a disease transmitted to humans by mites infected with the micro-organism Rickettsia. On December 8, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt released Executive Order 9285 creating the United States of America Typhus Commission (USATC) “for the purpose of protecting the members of the armed forces from typhus’ fever” and to “arrange for the analysis, study and publication of scientific data obtained in [the] field.”
Under the direction of Brigadier General Leon A. Fox and Dr. Fred Lowe Soper, the USATC’s goal was to create an efficient way to prevent the spread of typhus by testing the insecticides DDT and army lice powder MYL on infected communities. In 1943, the USATC used DDT to stop the spread of typhus in Naples; then proceeded to test the effects of MYL in Egypt. The USATC only recorded entomology reports until 1944, when an investigation of the flora around infected areas led by the Smithsonian’s E.D. Merrill and his “marauders” caught their attention. Fox and Soper established the Botany Section in Burma for the purpose of collecting plant life from infected villages to determine if Rickettsia had a specific floral niche in which it thrived.
Gervasi E. Juan, a student of Merrill’s, was placed in charge of the Botany Section which consisted of many drafted graduate students and professional botanists. In Burma, Juan noticed infected mites on the leaves of the ferns Phrynium placentarium and Cassia kleinii. The results showed that Rickettsia thrived in “ecological islands” of specific lush, green flora found in varying environments such as “semi-desert, montane desert, and alpine terrain,” as well as in the jungle.
Juan also considered the British Typhus Commission’s hypothesis “that mites were confined to strands of elephant grass.” While elephant grass, Pennistum purpureum, was found throughout infected villages, the USATC believed that the mites were equally attracted to other plants. Even though infected mites were found on elephant grass, they were also found on the nearby white and yellow bulbs of Senna siamea and Pollia secundiflora. The Botany Section was unable to determine however whether the grass or the flowers were the initial source of attraction.
Juan and his crew were responsible for sending over 3,000 plant specimens to the Smithsonian Institution. While only one new species was discovered during the campaign, the botanists were able to observe a range of flora they had not previously seen and provided them with an outlet to use their skills to benefit the war effort. The Commission was also incredibly successful in finding ways to prevent massive epidemics of typhus, and was hailed as having made the “finest achievements of modern preventive medicine.”
Bayne-Jones, S. “Typhus.” The American Journal of Nursing 44 (Sept. 1944): 821-823.
National Library of Medicine. “Fred L. Soper Papers” National Institute of Health, n.d. http://profiles.nlm.nih.gove/VV/.
Howard, Richard A. “The Role of Botanists during World War II in the Pacific Theatre.” Botanical Review 60 (April-June 1994): 197-255.