The Overlooked, Infectious Memories of Eastern Long Island
By Parker Ince The natural history of our area is largely written in our agricultural blessings. Fertile and versatile soil has allowed many types of farms to endure side-by-side with beachfront communities. Yet hidden in the environmental history of theEast Endlie grim, but crucial experiences that have likely saved the lives of millions of people and untold sums of money. Since 1898 theEast Endhas served as a testing ground for a number of infectious diseases. Macabre though it may be, we should never fail to shine a light on our region’s contributions to science and to life itself.
In 1898 theUnited Stateswas concluding a one-sided conflict withSpainover colonies worldwide, butCubain particular. When the Spanish-American War is remembered it is usually part of a larger conversation surrounding its most famous soldiers: Theodore Roosevelt and his band of Rough Riders. What is lost in the conversation about the war are the staggering casualty statistics. The American military outnumbered the Spanish fifteen-to-one, but failed to appreciate the real enemies of the theatre of battle. Yellow fever and malaria swarmed through the American ranks, prompting General William Shafter to refer to the units under his command as “an army of convalescents.” The war was over faster than anticipated, leaving the War Department to decide what to do with an army of highly infectious soldiers.
Eventually it was decided that soldiers returning home fromCubawould disembark at Montauk, where a hastily-constructedCampWikoffwould serve as a quarantine zone. Montauk was chosen because of its favorable winds, which would spread the miasma out into theAtlantic Ocean, rather than back inland towards population centers. The Rough Riders themselves landed onAugust 14, 1898to begin their months of rehabilitation. Although experiments in 1900 by Major Walter Reed would prove that yellow fever was transmitted via mosquito bites, the Army General Staff at the time believed they were acting in the public’s interest by shutting the soldiers away at a desolate, remote location. While it is true that the troops would not have spread yellow fever to the general population, their landing at a more heavily populated site could have incited panic regarding tropical diseases and more familiar afflictions, such as dysentery. Thus, Montauk played a crucial part in the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, and the quarantine proved successful in halting the spread of dysentery, malaria, and other campaign illnesses.
As the furthest reaches of the South Fork played a part in the history of infectious diseases during the 19th Century, the North Fork would rise to prominence in that field during the 20th Century. Though technically not connected to theNorth Fork,PlumIsland has become synonymous with dangerous, infamous, yet necessary experimentation on animal-borne pathogens.
Beginning in 1952, military installations onPlumIslandfocused on biological pathogens that could affect livestock, including diseases that could be weaponized. In 1954 the facility was brought under the control of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the goals of study switched to ‘defensive’ purposes. The research conducted atPlumIslandhas led directly to the eradication of rinderpest disease (also known as “cattle plague”), which has saved millions of human lives. As late as 1980, an outbreak of rinderpest swept throughEastern Africa, laying ruin to livestock herds and contributing to widespread famine. Thanks to research programs like those onPlumIsland, the last reported case of rinderpest occurred in 2001.
The eradication of rinderpest was an incredible accomplishment by research teams atPlumIslandand around the world, but one largely overlooked by the public. This is, in part, due to the public’s morbid fascination withPlumIsland’s other pathological focus: bovine Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD; not to be confused with “mad cow disease”). Though few humans have ever been infected with the disease, the presence of symptoms on one specimen can lead to the systematic destruction of entire herds in order to prevent the spread of the virus. In the environment of the Cold War, both sides were paranoid about the consequences of an introduction of FMD to domestic cattle herds. Though mass starvation resulting from herd culls would be unlikely in a country as productive as theUnited States, multiple industries and millions of jobs would be jeopardized by a mass attack. Destruction of a large portion of a nation’s cattle herds could have also been used as the precursor to a military strike. Thus the research at thePlumIslandfacility was of the highest importance to the Departments of Agriculture and Defense.
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