- Arresting Contagion: Science, Policy, and Conflicts over Animal Disease Control by Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode
Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode could well be summarizing their broader argument in Arresting Contagion when they write: “Government policies addressed serious health threats and market failures, making for a safer world” (p. 174). This line is their assessment of the birth and early successes of federal meat inspection after 1906. It simultaneously captures the economic historians’ central contention: the federal government successfully addressed serious human and animal health threats by using a combination of science and public policy to eradicate several contagious animal diseases between 1884 and the 1940s. The protagonists of these eradication campaigns were the civil servants, scientists, and politicians who struggled to develop and implement the once impossible task of extirpating disease-causing agents.
The organization responsible for the eradication work was the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, created by Congress in 1884 to save the nation’s animal industries from the growing threat of disease. The BAI expanded because various eradication campaigns forced the bureau to increase its police powers to overcome entrenched opposition while also escalating its meat inspection program. The authors calculate the economic benefit of vigorous disease eradication to be between 10:1 and 15:1 in favor of eradication, meaning that $1 spent on eradication eventually saves somewhere between $10 and $15. What the authors argue, in a sense, is that the government grew and it was a good thing.
Olmstead and Rhode contribute to the history of disease by recapturing what living with diseases used to be like and with a sense of just how audacious eradication initially was. Their main point in doing so is to counter public choice arguments, an economic theory that posits that federal government bureaucrats extended federal meat regulations as a form of rent seeking. The authors criticize this as dismissive of the actual harm diseases caused to the afflicted and as misunderstanding the link between disease eradication and industrial development. They track eradication starting with contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, eradicated in 1892, and continue with foot-and-mouth, bovine tuberculosis, Texas tick fever, and hog cholera. They focus on “area eradication” as the model employed by the BAI that resulted in the slaughter of all infected animals and the sterilization of the surrounding area. Federal meat inspection made further inroads into making meat safer. Only by eradicating these contagious diseases could meat production become efficient enough to survive further development and increasing trade. [End Page 280]
Historians of science and technology should find Olmstead and Rhode’s lesson about technology and policy of interest. The authors present vaccines as a technology that created a false sense of hope that, with their use, eradication and the economic losses that it produced would be unnecessary. Their key example for vaccines as false hope is hog cholera and the development of a vaccine for it in 1907. Vaccine use continued until the 1960s, when the nation finally got “off the fix” of the vaccine, as they describe it, and got around to eradicating the disease (p. 302). In the management of hog cholera, vaccines created disincentives for eradication, which allowed a deadly disease to linger in the food system longer than it ought to have.
Olmstead and Rhode could have investigated the meaning of science to better anchor their points. They present science as a positivist project awaiting completion and do not interrogate the construction of science. For example, BAI chief Daniel Salmon misidentified a bacterium as causing hog cholera, ignoring the evidence that demonstrated that the bacterium was not present in all hog cholera cases (p. 146). It was a misidentification he clung to despite the evidence. Therefore, it fell to non-BAI scientists to prove that a virus was responsible. The authors’ choice not to interrogate the construction of science prevents them from providing more insight into why such a highly scientific bureau and its leading...