In 1929, Parrot Fever Gripped The Country

It was a classic medical scare story: Parrots died. A few people got sick. Newspapers went wild. Then, well after the outbreak of "parrot fever" was declared dormant, researchers who dealt with the birds began to mysteriously die themselves. Historian Jill Lepore talks to host Jacki Lyden about the great parrot fever outbreak of 1929. Lepore chronicles the episode in the June 1 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

A disease jumps from animals to humans; there's no cure. People start to die, a city panics and the media feeds the fear with sensational headlines. The H1N1 swine flu? No, it's 1929, and parrot fever has gripped the country.

Historian Jill Lepore writes about the forgotten fever in the current issue of the New Yorker. And she joins us to walk us through the story.

Welcome, Jill Lepore.

Ms. JILL LEPORE (Historian): Thanks.

LYDEN: All this started when a man named Simon Martin, who was secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Annapolis, Maryland, bought a parrot in Baltimore for his wife 10 days before Christmas in 1929. What happened after that?

Ms. LEPORE: Well, you can imagine it's sort of a difficult shopping season to begin with, in the wake of the greatest stock market crash in American history, and Christmas Day comes, and under the Christmas tree is a dead parrot. And Martin, as you say, is secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, is troubled and brings the dead parrot back to the pet store. The pet store owner offers a replacement, but very quickly, Martin's wife Lillian and his daughter and son-in-law become quite sick within a matter of days, quite dangerously sick.

LYDEN: So then the Baltimore mayor alerts the governor.

Ms. LEPORE: The mayor alerts the governor, and the Martin family doctor had read an article in the newspaper about something called parrot fever, and he knew that the Martins had just had this parrot and had it died, and he put two and two together and became convinced that these three people he was treating were suffering from psittacosis, which is the technical name for parrot fever.

He sent a telegram to Washington, to the U.S. Public Health Service, asking for a serum to be shipped immediately, and there was no known treatment whatsoever for parrot fever. In a matter of hours, the sort of entire apparatus of the American public health system descended on Annapolis, where the patients were hospitalized.

LYDEN: The U.S. Public Health Service runs the Hygienic Laboratory, and it gets involved. And the guy the government puts in charge of the investigation is a scientist named Charles Armstrong. What's his mission?

Ms. LEPORE: He's charged with figuring out the extent of the outbreak and coming up with a way to contain it. He sets about investigating all the cases that are now popping up in Maryland. At the pet shop in Baltimore, where Simon Martin had bought his parrot, they'd sold 36 parrots for Christmas presents, and all those parrots have got to be tracked down. A number of them are sick.

By now, just a matter of days into January, four employees at the pet shop in Baltimore are sick. And Armstrong decides that the way to gather information about this outbreak is to cable all the public health departments in every American state and in cities where they are now cropping up suspected cases. What he needs to do to solve the mystery is to spread the word.

LYDEN: Which spreads the panic.

Ms. LEPORE: Spreads the panic. So, within hours, literally within hours of January 6, which is when this team of people all descend on Annapolis to try to figure out what's wrong with Lillian Martin, the entire country is on the alert for parrot fever.

LYDEN: Now, the remarkable thing about this is that even as parrots are being exhumed and newspapers are reporting on is a parrot sick, has it got puffy eyes, is it not, a week or so after this all begins, by January 15, it's over. The Chicago Daily Tribune reports: U.S. alarm over parrot fever not warranted. The Wall Street Journal mocks it. What's happened?

Ms. LEPORE: Two things have happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

One is the newspapers overstated the case in the first place and sold a lot of newspapers, doubtless, by blaring headlines that reported deaths that turned out to actually have been deaths due to pneumonia, for instance, reported death counts and issued postmortems where no autopsy had been conducted, and there was - the only reason to suspect parrot fever was that someone had actually owned a parrot or been near a parrot.

The second thing that happened was there was just a pushback against the extremity of the story. So, it suddenly became a national joke. And when the story turned, it turned so fast, and it turned all at once everywhere. So, really within a matter of a day, newspapers that had been screaming headlines about, you know, you should be bringing your parrots to the zoo, you should be abandoning your parrots, you should be wringing your parrot's neck, if you've been with a parrot, you should take yourself to hospital, suddenly turn around and are telling parrot jokes.

LYDEN: After everyone's decided there's nothing to worry about, then comes this awful development. The scientists and doctors who've been close to these infected birds start to die in February, and they die fast and one by one. And microbe-hunter Charles Armstrong from the Hygienic Laboratory is himself in hospital with a fever of 104.

Ms. LEPORE: Armstrong had been working tirelessly, of course, both to identify the sick and to study the disease, to isolate the germ and to come up with a cure for it. And on the day that his laboratory assistant, his long-time assistant, Shorty Anderson, dies, Armstrong drags himself to the hospital. He's got a fever of 104 and looks - it looks very much as though he's going to die, as well.

The director of the Hygienic Laboratory, George McCoy, who not only insists on taking over Armstrong's research on the disease itself, decides to do something that is not commonly done in 1930. And he takes the blood from a patient who has survived parrot fever and injects that blood into Armstrong's veins without any of the safeties that we would think about today of how you might clean blood. And Armstrong manages to survive.

LYDEN: What happens then? The director of the Hygienic Laboratory, McCoy, throws himself into the action.

Ms. LEPORE: People keep getting sick. A number of doctors in New York get sick, and nurses get sick in New York. They all end up surviving. But 11 of the 54 employees of the Hygienic Laboratory in Washington have gotten very, very ill, and McCoy decides the whole building just has to be evacuated.

He goes by himself into the Hygienic Laboratory, down to these two basement rooms where Armstrong had been doing his research. He brings with him a bottle of chloroform. He kills every animal: the parrots, monkeys, pigeons, rats, that had been used in Armstrong's experiments. He seals all the windows up. He leaves the building. He calls in a fumigation squad, and they fill the building with cyanide.

LYDEN: And then, I couldn't believe the ending, what Congress does two months later.

Ms. LEPORE: The Hygienic Laboratory, which had been hoping for a long time to have a greater role and had been making the case to Congress for some while that it needed a broader mandate and more funding and indeed a new title. And just a couple of months after the end of the parrot fever panic, Congress grants the Hygienic Laboratory all those things, including a new name, the National Institute of Health.

LYDEN: It's an incredible story.

Ms. LEPORE: It's a great story, but - and I think it's a great cautionary tale about how easily confounded the public is about messages that are sent both from the scientific community and the public health community and from the media, and a kind of tangle of mutual dependence that those two communities are involved in.

Scientists really need the media to promote scientific work so that scientists can get funding for their work, and their work is important. They should get funding for it. But the media doesn't really have enough expertise to evaluate the work of scientists, and what the media wants is a story that makes a good story. The parrot fever outbreak made a good story. The parrot fever jokes made good jokes. Neither of them actually bore much resemblance to the facts of the matter.

LYDEN: Jill Lepore is chair of the History and Literature program at Harvard University. And she joined us on the line from Cambridge, Mass. Jill Lepore, thank you.

Ms. LEPORE: Sure, thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

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