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Managing a national crisis: the 1924 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in California.

The storms were late in coming to northern California in 1924. In the towns along the east side of San Francisco Bay, businessmen who depended on processing and shipping agricultural products from the state's interior grew concerned. People in Hayward, Oakland, and Berkeley looked out at the dry, brown hills to the east and wondered when spring would arrive. Across the Northern Coast Range in the Central Valley, farmers and ranchers watched their fields grow drier and listened apprehensively to reports that little snow had fallen in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to feed the rivers that watered the valley in the summer. By the end of January there was talk of drought.

Then, at the beginning of February, rain, although still patchy and inadequate, began to fall. As the first storms swept in across the bay, washing the streets and soaking the ground, the hills, so recently brown and dead, began to turn green. Like magic, wildflowers burst into bloom. Delighted by these omens of spring, hikers and picnickers poured out of the towns to walk the hills and pick the wildflowers, while cattle browsed contentedly on the new growth. Neither people nor animals knew that among the bright green shoots lurked the highly contagious virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease in hoofed animals and pigs. Within weeks, a full-blown epidemic gripped northern California and quickly spread to other parts of the state. State and federal officials implemented draconian measures to contain it and generally succeeded, but they proved far less successful in managing the panicky reactions of other states and foreign countries to the outbreak. Not for the last time, governments at all levels found themselves inadequately prepared to manage a major crisis.


On February 17 Dr. J. J. Hogarty, Alameda County's livestock inspector, was called to a farm in West Berkeley, where the farmer reported that his cattle seemed unusually stiff and sore. Although the symptoms were not conclusive, Hogarty immediately suspected foot-and-mouth disease and arranged a consultation the next day with an expert from the University of California. On February 18 the two men examined the Berkeley herd, and Hogarty also heard by telephone from a veterinarian in Hayward that cows at the Shore Acres Dairy Farm in San Leandro had sore mouths, were slobbering profusely, and refused to eat. Finding in their mouths and on their legs near the hoof small blisters filled with a yellowish fluid, Hogarty's fears were confirmed. He quickly telephoned the state department of agriculture in Sacramento, where Dr. J. P. Iverson called the local representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Rudolph Snyder. Snyder left for Oakland on February 20. That same evening California's director of agriculture, the rotund, bushy-haired George Henry Hecke, ordered a temporary quarantine and ban on shipment of all cattle from Alameda County. It was issued on February 22. (1)

No sooner had Hecke acted to seal off Alameda County, however, when he discovered that the situation was far worse than he had imagined: the Berkeley city veterinarian who had been called to a West Berkeley slaughterhouse to examine some sick hogs reported that the animals in question, which he strongly suspected were suffering from foot-and-mouth disease, not only had been on the slaughterhouse grounds for about thirty days, but some had come from the north side of the Sacramento River, well outside Alameda County. A hasty examination that afternoon of the Winslow ranch near Napa, from which some of the pigs had originated, confirmed that the disease was there as well. Indeed, later investigation led state authorities to suspect that it had been present on the ranch for as much as a year prior to its discovery in the slaughterhouse.

It was now obvious that Hecke's quarantine of Alameda County was inadequate; at least three counties--Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano--were all infected and possibly others as well. (2) On February 23 Hecke extended the quarantine to Contra Costa, Solano, and Napa counties, officially notified the USDA in Washington of the outbreak, and began to assemble a special taskforce of all available state and federal veterinary inspectors at the Hotel Oakland.


Within an hour of receiving Hecke's message, Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace announced a federal quarantine of the affected counties and the mass slaughter of infected herds. The next morning the administration arranged to introduce House Joint Resolution 247 providing for the appropriation of $1.5 million to fight the outbreak and to compensate farmers for slaughtered animals. Despite the Oakland Tribune's report on February 23 that people were in no danger from meat or milk from affected animals and that, according to "unnamed experts," the spread of the disease had been "checked," panic spread even faster than the virus. That same day the Canadian government closed its borders to all shipments of cattle, sheep, swine, goats, dogs, poultry, meat or other animal parts, as well as hay, straw, fodder, or manure from California, Nevada, and Oregon. Four days later Colorado embargoed all California livestock, hay, and straw. (3)

The federal government reacted so quickly to the outbreak because, following previous outbreaks in New England (1902), New York and Pennsylvania (1908), and Michigan and Illinois (1914-15), the USDA had created lists of experienced veterinarians in every agricultural region of the country. In 1917 the department published two thousand copies of a booklet providing information about the disease and outlining procedures to be followed in the event of a future outbreak. There would be no half measures; affected areas would be strictly quarantined and infected herds would be slaughtered. Agricultural authorities in every state also agreed not only on exactly how quarantines would be defined and enforced, but also the equal sharing by the states and the federal government in the costs of destroying and burying infected animals, hiring guards, obtaining equipment needed to enforce quarantines, and compensating cattle owners for destroyed animals.

With these federal measures in place, Hecke coordinated a group of experienced state agriculture department experts to work closely with a federal team of experts, led by Dr. Rudolph Snyder, resident USDA agent in Sacramento, to implement the federal plan. Within six weeks the team included 60 state and 110 federal agents; the federal force eventually grew to more than 200. (4) In terms of actually combating the disease, state and federal officials were thus well prepared for a crisis. They were, however, almost totally unprepared to deal with the national and international panic that accompanied the outbreak.

The rapid federal and state responses to the crisis and the strict quarantine imposed on the four affected counties led Hecke to be optimistic. On February 25 he told the Oakland Tribune that it was "almost safe to say" that the outbreak had been confined to the four quarantined counties. But even before the words were out of his mouth, the quarantine was extended to Monterey County, with fifteen other counties under "provisional quarantine." Thereafter, the pattern of soothing announcements about the outbreak's imminent end, closely coupled with announcements of newly affected herds, recurred on almost a daily basis. (5)

A large part of the reason for the initial series of misleading bulletins was Hecke's mandate, as director of California's five-year-old department of agriculture, to promote the state's booming agricultural industry rather than regulate or police it. Furthermore, in his previous post as commissioner of horticulture, his expertise was in slow-spreading plant diseases rather than rapid-moving animal infections. At first he obviously underestimated the danger of the situation, but Hecke was an intelligent and realistic man. Once he grasped that the state's entire livestock industry was threatened, he dropped his optimistic pronouncements and cooperated wholeheartedly with federal agricultural authorities in an all-out attack on the plague, including the mass slaughter of infected animals. (6)

Many livestock owners were reluctant, understandably, to accept the idea that the only solution lay in mass slaughter. Since the mortality rate for the disease was low--around 3 percent--and animals seemed to recover spontaneously after a time, people who had little experience with the disease hoped that some medicine would cure it or that doing nothing would lead eventually to full recovery. The USDA was flooded with proposals for treating affected animals, many from countries where the disease was endemic and all hope of eliminating it had been abandoned. But U.S. experts were convinced that in North America, where the disease was rare and isolated, complete extirpation was possible and preferable. They contended that the long recovery period for infected animals, plus the probability the disease would be spread by humans and other animals from the farms where the infection began, meant that the best approach was the mass slaughter of infected herds. (7)

Assiduously following the 1917 federal plan, armed guards were placed at the entrances to the properties where the disease was discovered, the affected animals were inspected and appraised, and huge trenches were dug into which the animals were driven and then shot. The carcasses were covered with lime and dirt, and the graves were watched for a month or two following the slaughter to prevent scavengers from digging them up or the gasses generated by decomposition from blowing open the graves. Following the slaughter and burial of a herd, the infected premises as well as the wheels of all vehicles and the shoes or boots of all residents were cleaned and thoroughly disinfected by a crew specially trained for the job. Herds on neighboring properties were moved as far as possible from the site of infection, and all herds three to five miles in all directions from the infected area were inspected on a regular basis--sometimes daily, but usually weekly. At special stations set up on the highways in the quarantined areas, all vehicles drove through disinfectant pools, and travelers sometimes fumigated their clothing. (8)

By March 8, more than ten thousand infected animals were identified, and nearly seven thousand slaughtered. Cautiously optimistic, officials warned that only the passage of weeks without a new outbreak would prove that the crisis was over. Four days later, with the last of more than eleven thousand animals killed and buried, their premises disinfected, and no new cases reported outside the original area, California's governor, Friend Richardson, lifted the provisional quarantine on nine counties, though it remained in place on the original four. (9)

By late March authorities were pleased that they seemed to have contained the spread of the disease to the original four counties but were frustrated at their inability to stamp it out in that area. Local stockmen feared that all animals in those four counties would have to be killed, and in Alameda County increasingly desperate officials contemplated closing all highways in the southern part of the county to prevent further spread. Then, on March 24 it was announced that an infected herd had been discovered a hundred miles away in the Central Valley county of Merced. Carried on the boots of a Merced cattle dealer who had visited the infected slaughterhouse in West Berkeley in mid-February, the disease had leaped over the intervening territory and now threatened not only the Central Valley but Mariposa, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne counties in the Sierra foothills. If it got that far, deer and elk could carry it into the mountains and eastward into other states. And equally alarming, shortly before the outbreak was discovered in Merced, there had been large shipments of cattle from that region brought to Los Angeles


"Although it is the duty of all to aid in the enforcement of quarantine orders, there will be misguided individuals in every outbreak who, through ignorance of the true nature of the disease of for other reasons, will oppose the slaughter of animals."

--A. W. Miller, "Foot and Mouth Disease in the United States," United States Department of Agriculture, Yearbook of Agriculture 7926 (Washington, D. C.: GPO, 1927)

At various times during California's 1924 outbreak, objections were made to the rigorous policies enforced by state and federal governments to control and eradicate foot-and-mouth disease, none more loudly perhaps than the slaughter of infected and exposed animals. Of all the regulations--inspection, quarantine, slaughter, the cleaning and disinfection of premises, and re-inspection--slaughter of animals was least understood, primarily due to the disease's low mortality.

However, studies conducted after the outbreak by the newly established American Foot-and-Mouth Disease Commission (1925-26)--a group of three scientists working abroad, where conducting research was possible for American scientists--confirmed the viability of slaughter as an effective method and a critical component of the disease's control and eradication.

Among the findings were the risk of secondary illness, such as heart lesions, and outbreaks, due to virus carriers, who could harbor the virus for a long time after recovery and cause future outbreaks, sometimes more than a year after recovery. Subsequent studies identified six types of the virus (A, O, C, SAT-1, SAT-2, and SAT-3) that could readily infect animals, even those immune to one of them, and demonstrated that infection could occur through transmission by intermediate hosts (e.g., the cattle fever tick).

During the 1924 outbreak, however, such technical information was not available. Twenty months of ceaseless effort were required before it was considered sale to remove all restrictions from the involved areas.

From 1924 to 1925, 58,791 cattle, 21,195 hogs, 28,382 sheep, 1,391 goats, and 22,214 deer were slaughtered. The images that follow tell their story.


and of hogs to San Francisco. Los Angeles and San Francisco counties immediately were placed under quarantine, and armed guards were posted at the cities' stockyards. With almost two-thirds of the state's human population now in quarantined areas, intrastate travel and business came nearly to a halt. Utah officials proposed a complete ban on all shipments of livestock, meat, and dairy products outside the state; by April 1, seven neighboring states had adopted what was described as a "ring of steel" policy banning shipments of all agricultural products from California. (10)

California residents now found themselves increasingly subject to a sort of house arrest. Roads and trails were closed or travel on them severely restricted, appeals were issued to people not to pick wildflowers, and outdoor public events such as Picnic Day at the University of California at Davis (a fifteen-year tradition), the Pacific Coast college tennis tournament, and rodeos at Monterey and Salinas were canceled. A delay in the opening of the state trout fishing season was proposed, and the National Park Service closed all roads into Yosemite Park, permitting access only by train. Although USDA inspectors insisted that the meat on sale in East Bay stores was perfectly sale, such reassurance demonstrated that anxiety and discontent were growing, perhaps exacerbated by a reported drop in bootlegging as liquor runners found it difficult to travel around the state distributing their product. (11)


By early April foot-and-mouth disease had become much more than a state problem. Canada extended its ban of all shipments of cattle and hay from California to the whole western United States, while Colorado and Montana embargoed California fruits, vegetables, trees, and shrubbery, as well as products associated with cattle or sheep. Montana even prohibited the entry of California farm workers, and Arizona announced that it would close all cross-border roads to eastbound traffic on April II. Ultimately, thirty-six states, the territory of Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, and a number of other countries embargoed some or all agricultural products from California. Even within the state, uninfected counties blocked shipments from infected regions. Shipping companies, unable to predict which items would be stopped at some state or local border, refused to contract with farmers or wholesalers to carry any California products. California chambers of commerce and fruit growers' associations, terrified that the international panic would close markets to every California product, urgently petitioned Governor Richardson to calla special session of the state legislature. He refused, but state officials did organize a conference of representatives from western states at Salt Lake City on April i, where agreement was reached on regulations governing the packing and shipping of agricultural products other than animals that reassured leaders of the uninfected states and made possible the shipment of at least some of California's produce. But as the plague moved south into Kern County and the Imperial Valley, growers of fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products continued to pour out their worries to the federal government. (12)

In Washington, D.C., Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, himself a Californian and part owner of a large fruit and cotton farm in Kern County, was sympathetic to the lamentations coming from the West Coast and tried to do what he could to help. On April 17 he wrote to President Calvin Coolidge that the "scare" surrounding the epidemic had "reached a stage where it seriously interferes with interstate commerce and ... is beginning to alarm the banking community." He recommended that the USDA "undertake the responsibility of certifying rail shipments [of fruits and vegetables] out of California." Hoover also proposed to Governor Richardson of California that neighboring states be asked politely to accept shipments cleared by the USDA. He suggested that if they balked, a hint could be dropped that California might bring action against them in the Supreme Court for interfering with interstate commerce. Richardson was quick to adopt Hoover's suggestion, but Coolidge, as usual, was resistant to action, and for a few days it appeared that nothing would be done. (13)

Coolidge's reluctance crumbled when events on the West Coast escalated beyond control. The crisis began on April II, when Arizona cut off all eastbound traffic from California at the Ehrenberg ferry and the Yuma and Needles bridges over the Colorado River, posting guards at the crossings to turn back travelers. By April 17 some sixteen hundred irate motorists were backed up on the California side of the line, sleeping in cars and on pool tables in local bars, running short of food despite an appeal from the mayor of Needles for contributions. When about five hundred of the stranded travelers held a mass meeting and decided to rush the Yuma Bridge, Arizona Governor George W. P. Hunt ordered entrances to the bridge chained off and posted more guards to stop anyone trying to cross. Despite a statement by President Coolidge that Arizona's blockade was "altogether more severe than necessary," Hunt declared that it would be "courting disaster" to modify any of Arizona's restrictions. Nevertheless, the governor did back down, and on April 18 his office announced that travel would reopen some time during the coming week. (14)

Hunt's retreat came too late. The evening of his announcement, some seven hundred motorists in two hundred cars rushed the cordon of guards posted at Yuma Bridge. The first vehicles broke through, only to face a second ring of defenses: firemen hastily called up by the governor from nearby towns and armed with high-pressure hoses. Fortunately, neither guards nor motorists were armed, so there was no shooting, and although most of the cars were turned back, four carrying people with genuine emergencies (including a woman in labor) were allowed to pass. Seeing these exceptions to the travel ban, those who had turned around reversed again, and in the confusion some of the cars broke through. Hunt, vowing to reestablish the blockade, ordered members of the Arizona National Guard, armed with machine guns, to man the barricades at the end of the bridge. He threatened to prohibit eastbound rail, as well as automobile traffic, from California. (15)

Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed and on April 19 Arizona announced that those already camped at the Yuma bridgehead would be allowed to cross if they underwent careful fumigation, after which the blockade would be restored. A corrugated iron fumigation shed was hastily erected on the California side of the border, and motorists lined up patiently to endure the twenty-minute process of having their cars sprayed with formaldehyde and their clothes and baggage treated with steam. The desert sun turned the fumigation shed into an inferno, and as a trickle of travelers left it, gun-toting Arizona guardsmen menaced everyone crossing the bridge. On the California side deputy sheriffs armed with rifles and sawed-off shotguns vowed to resist any attempt by the Arizona authorities to cross into California, but the fact that even a few travelers were getting through relieved some of the tension. (16)

Within twenty-four hours several hundred waiting motorists had been treated and allowed to continue their trips, and at 9:00 A.M. on the morning of April 20 Arizona again closed its borders to all eastbound automobile traffic, renewing the threat to block rail traffic as well. With new outbreaks of disease reported in Merced, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties, there was little likelihood that the situation would improve in the near future, and as more motorists began to pile up at crossing points, it seemed possible that frustrations on both sides of the border would lead to violence. In Washington, President Coolidge was goaded at last into adopting Secretary Hoover's suggestion. He hastily telegraphed the governors of Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and California to propose an interstate conference to standardize quarantine regulations and secure permission for the USDA to assume authority to inspect shipments of agricultural products from California and certify their safety. Moreover, in addition to securing $1 million for the eradication campaign on April 2, Congress appropriated $1.5 million on April 26 and another $3.5 million in May. But California officials, despite their loud complaints about the situation, were slow to take comparable steps. (17)

In Sacramento, where the legislature was not in session, Governor Richardson was unwilling to take the political risk of calling a special session to ask for an appropriation to pay for the cleanup and help compensate stock owners. Nor was he willing to ask lawmakers to pass legislation authorizing agricultural agents to slaughter animals that were in diseased herds but not actually sick, which the agents believed was essential to successful eradication. Instead, he secured $2 million on the strength of pledges wired to him by individual legislators that they would appropriate the money when the legislature next met. Overall, the governor offered little leadership in dealing with the crisis and agricultural officials were left on their own. Despairing of receiving official support, state agricultural agents simply proceeded with the slaughter of animals on the assumption that they had general authority to protect the public's health. In mid-April Hecke proposed to bypass Sacramento entirely and let the USDA assume authority for eradication. The proposal was welcomed in Washington and on April 24 the federal Bureau of Animal Industry took full charge of the campaign. All state agricultural agents became "collaborating federal inspectors" and all federal agents were commissioned as state agents. The federal agents would lead the fight against the disease and would begin inspecting and certifying the safety of shipments of California agricultural products other than those of animals. (18)


At the same time, Hoover launched an attack on the problem from a different direction. On April 25 he wrote to Dr. Simon Flexner, director of laboratories at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City, suggesting that the institute investigate how the disease was transferred from one animal to another in the hope that research could eliminate fresh fruits and vegetables as carriers. Even if it proved impossible "to isolate the germ or provide any of the defenses in the nature of inoculation, etc.," wrote Hoover, "the very effort would be a great comfort to the people of California." A few days later he forwarded to the USDA Flexner's suggestion that one of the unused World War I cargo ships owned by the United States Shipping Board and anchored off the East Coast become a floating laboratory where scientists from the Rockefeller Institute could study the foot-and-mouth disease virus. (19)

Secretary of Agriculture Wallace, however, wanted nothing to do with Hoover's suggestion. He would not "care to be a party to any plan which contemplates transferring the virus of foot-and-mouth disease to any point on the Atlantic Coast," he wrote. Faced with this attitude, Flexner quickly retreated. Although, as a scientist, he believed that relatively simple precautions would eliminate any danger of the virus escaping, he was unwilling to allow the institute to take on the project in the face of the USDA's "fear of escape and the setting up of another outbreak of the disease." (20)

Buried in Flexner's letter to Hoover was a point that, if widely accepted, might have substantially modified the techniques used in fighting the disease. Flexner argued that the rapid disappearance of the disease following the slaughter of infected animals suggested that "the virus has no very great power of survival aside from the infected animals." (21) The implication of this insight was that elaborate and expensive procedures for disinfecting ground, equipment, and people following the slaughter of an infected herd were unnecessary. They reassured the public but had no other value--a conclusion that was borne out the following year in isolated areas of the Sierras where little cleanup was possible after the slaughter of infected herds. Had the Rockefeller Institute been allowed to study the virus, this conclusion might have been confirmed and thus might have reduced the cost of combating future outbreaks--but at the price, perhaps, of greater public alarm. (22)

Regardless of the USDA's new role in California and Governor Richardson's claim that the epidemic was under control, Arizona's Governor Hunt was not reassured. A Democrat who previously tangled with Hoover over apportionment of the water of the Colorado River between Arizona and California, Hunt had little liking and less trust for Republicans, whether they were in Sacramento of Washington. On April 22 he announced that effective April 28 all rail passengers from California would have to be inspected and disinfected. State agriculture department officials were reportedly "incensed" at these "unreasonable and unnecessary" regulations, and once again Hunt backed down in the face of opposition. The requirement for inspection and disinfection of rail passengers was quietly dropped before it ever went into effect, and the only inconvenience to travelers was the restriction of bringing nothing but "hand luggage" with them on the train. Nevertheless, on April 26 the Oakland Tribune reported renewed concern about possible armed conflict along the Arizona-California border and shortly afterward the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco noted a general decline in trade and business throughout the state as a result of the disease. (23)

The panic that led Governor Hunt to issue travel restrictions also affected others. A West Virginia glass company wrote to the Department of Commerce complaining that it had been told that a shipment of its glass from Baltimore to Hawaii would not be admitted at Honolulu if it was packed in hay, even though the hay was grown in Wisconsin, not California. That misunderstanding took a week's worth of telegrams back and forth to Hawaii to be resolved. A rumor that a newsreel company, International News, was distributing a film showing the slaughter of diseased cattle in California required Hoover's personal intervention with the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, Will H. Hays, to assure him that none of the newsreel companies would distribute such pictures. Another rumor that members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were using infected dogs to spread the disease in California and encouraging a general boycott of California goods led Assistant Federal District Attorney Grove L. Fink to announce that the Department of Justice would "round up" IWW members. As George Hecke noted, it was "necessary not only to surround, corral, rope and exterminate the disease itself, but also to carry on a running fight with the blind fear that strove mightily to bar out of great American and foreign markets the clean output of California's horticulture." (24) However real the fear of foot-and-mouth disease might be, it was obvious that some interests inside and outside the state also found it a convenient excuse for advancing their economic and political fortunes. Neither the state nor federal government was prepared to deal with this aspect of the crisis.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, by the end of April the outbreak began to weaken. On April 28 newspapers reported that thirty-three days had passed without new infections in Alameda County and that restocking the county's farms would begin. Delegates from several states who visited California on April 28 and 29 to see the situation first-hand noted their belief that conditions were much improved and that some softening of restrictions on shipments was warranted. On May z the state agriculture department lifted the quarantine completely for Marin, Sonoma, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties and restricted it to limited areas of Napa and Solano counties. A week later, with two cases in Los Angeles County the only new infections reported, quarantine restrictions were relaxed almost everywhere and officials began to determine the cost of fighting the outbreak. (25)

The understandable eagerness in California to return to normal proved premature. New cases, sometimes moderately serious, continued to crop up in the southern and eastern parts of the state throughout the summer of 1924, with the last confirmed outbreak on a previously uninfected farm on October 9. Nevertheless, by late June quarantines were lifted throughout most of the state and people began to believe that the worst was over. (26)


What the public did not know, however, was that a new threat had seriously alarmed federal officials. On July 12 agents of the U.S. Forest Service confirmed that foot-and-mouth disease had been found among deer in the Stanislaus National Forest. No one knew how many deer lived in the thousand square miles of the Sierras, but as Hecke later summarized, it was obvious that unless the disease could be stamped out it "might spread among these animals up and down their feeding grounds in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and elsewhere with the gravest consequences." There seemed no alternative to launching a massive hunt to round up, kill, and bury as many as possible of the thousands of deer in the region. At various times, from one hundred to four hundred hunters were housed in some forty-three separate camps scattered throughout the mountains. Adding to the difficulties of finding and killing the deer amid some of the most rugged terrain in the West was the outraged opposition of local hunters, whose threats against government officials led to a temporary suspension of the operation in September. A few days later the hunt resumed, however, and continued until November, when snowstorms drove both deer and hunters to lower altitudes where the systematic slaughter continued throughout the winter. By June 1925 more than twenty-two thousand deer had been killed, of which a little over so percent were infected with foot-and-mouth disease. The national forests in the Sierras remained under quarantine and were not reopened until June 1926, a year after the last infected deer was killed. (27)

The campaign against the disease among the deer of the Sierras--in many ways the most massive and astonishing part of the whole operation--drew little or no public notice. Conducted in areas remote from centers of population, it inconvenienced hunters and caused problems for stockmen accustomed to pasturing their herds in the national forests, but it seems to have been accepted without protest by Californians, who were prevented from camping and hiking in the state's eastern mountains for a year. For most people, apparently, the loss seemed minor compared to the benefits resulting from the reopening of trade and travel with the outside world. Having suffered through a year-long recession caused in part by the outbreak, most Californians were in no mood to complain. (28)


The waning of the epidemic in the agricultural regions of California in the summer of 1924 reduced any pressure the USDA may have felt to permit a scientific study of the disease, as did news from Europe about scientific breakthroughs in the study of the virus. (29) When the Los Angeles County Medical Association adopted a resolution urging the department "to carry out or authorize investigations with foot-and-mouth disease," Secretary of Agriculture Wallace rejected the request. The USDA, he wrote, had decided "after most careful consideration of every phase of this subject" not to "approve experimentation with the virus" within the United States. He went on to list five reasons for the decision:
 First, that only a cursory study of the disease could be made in
 infected areas under our system of prompt slaughter and burial of
 affected and exposed animals, unless the virus were propagated and
 kept on hand for an extended period after the disease would
 otherwise have been stamped out. Second, that there is little or no
 prospect that such a study would add anything to the knowledge that
 has been gained by the vast amount of experimental and research
 study that has been made of this disease by European investigators
 of eminent standing in both veterinary and human fields of
 medicine. Third, the difficulty of controlling the virus of this
 highly infectious malady and preventing the escape of the
 infection. Fourth, the probability that many of the States, if they
 knew that experiments were being carried on with this disease,
 would immediately place embargoes upon shipments of practically all
 the products of the State in which investigations were being made.
 Fifth, the likelihood that any investigation or research study that
 might produce worth while [sic] results would have to be carried on
 for months and possibly years, during which time the virus of the
 disease would be a potential menace to healthy, susceptible animals
 in the vicinity. (30)

When examined, Wallace's argument presents two main objections to a scientific study of the foot-and-mouth disease virus: that it was scientifically dangerous and that it was politically inexpedient. The argument that sustained study of the virus under laboratory conditions posed unacceptable risks of infection to healthy animals had little validity. As Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute explained to Herbert Hoover, "By exercising precautions of incinerating all materials in contact with the experimental animals and the precise control of personnel--clothing, shoes, etc.," any danger that the disease would escape from a laboratory would be obviated. Wallace's other scientific objection--that basic research was making rapid progress in Europe--had greater validity, although it was based on little more than reports in newspapers. European scientists were still some distance from prevention or cure. From a scientific standpoint, an American study of the disease was by no means an unreasonable suggestion. (31)

Since USDA scientists certainly would have understood that a scientific study could be conducted safely, we must conclude that other considerations lay behind Wallace's adamant stand. The possibility that announcement of a study would spark widespread panic seems to have been his major concern. Irrational panic was, after all, the aspect of the 1924 crisis for which the government was least prepared and which it was least successful in controlling, especially where panic united with self-interest. Arizona's Governor Hunt, who had a long-running feud with California over water, welcomed a chance to take a slap at his hated neighbor. Stockmen and agricultural producers in neighboring states found their products easier to sell and more profitable with California's goods off the market. Conservatives leaped at the opportunity to blame the hated IWW for the epidemic. In an atmosphere of fear, the self-interested found opportunities to exploit the situation. Wallace might have deplored that, but the government lacked the capacity to combat it effectively. Better, under the circumstances, to avoid providing any excuse for fearmongers to exploit.


The 1924 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak suggests two points that are relevant to other national crises. The first is that advance planning and preparation do pay off. By 1924 the USDA had developed detailed guidelines for dealing with an epidemic of the disease and had identified local experts competent to lead the fight against it. As soon as the disease was reported, federal and state authorities acted quickly and worked well together to combat it. Had they not been so well prepared, the low death rates among animals might have generated insurmountable pressure to avoid the wholesale slaughter that was essential to total eradication. As it was, their measures seem to have eliminated the virus completely in California, at least for the time being.

The second is that neither then nor since are governments very effective in preventing and suppressing the rumors and panic that accompany a national crisis. In the California case, elaborate disinfection measures that followed the slaughter of herds may have been scientifically unnecessary but were probably helpful in controlling public hysteria within the state. But efforts to control the panicky reactions of neighboring states and foreign nations had little effect. Measures to certify as safe shipments of agricultural products unaffected by the disease were adopted slowly and incompletely. And even after the outbreak was over, California's agricultural organizations were unsuccessful in securing interstate agreements on future quarantine regulations. (32) The experiences of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina suggest that, even with modern high-speed communications and a greater willingness to impose the authority of the federal government than was the case in the 1920s, controlling the psychological damage of a national crisis may still be the toughest test of any government.

Special thanks to California History staff members for their ingenuity and hard work in finding, captioning, and laying out the images that accompany this article, as well as for other editorial assistance.

(1) Charles Keane, The Epizootic of Foot and Mouth Disease in California, State of California Department of Agriculture, Special Publication No. 65 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1926), 16-18; Jack Klein, "Foot and Mouth Disease Outbreak," California Cultivator 62 (March 1, 1924): 271.

(2) Kean, Epizootic, 18-19. Investigators suspected that the Napa hogs were infected by being fed garbage from the Mare Island navy station in San Francisco Bay. Winslow had a contract to remove the base's garbage, much of which came from navy ships that often purchased provisions in South America or Asia where foot-and-mouth disease was endemic. Investigators concluded the disease was then spread elsewhere in the area on the shoes and clothing of visitors to the Winslow farm (ibid., 23-26).

(3) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Husbandry, Report of the Chief, 1924 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1924), 1; Congressional Record, 68th Cong., 1st sess., April 19, 1924, P. 6716; Oakland Tribune, February 23, 1924, 1; February 24, 1924, 1A; February 28, 1924, 11; The New York Times, February 24, 1924, 1:1.

(4) U. G. Houck, The Bureau of Animal Husbandry of the United States Department of Agriculture: Its Establishment, Achievements and Current Activities (Washington, DC: privately printed, 1924), 280-95; Donald P. Spear, "California Besieged: The Foot-and-Mouth Epidemic of 1924," Agricultural History 56, no. 3 (July 1982): 531.

(5) Oakland Tribune, February 26, 1924, 1, 2; February 28, 1924, 18; February 29, 1924, 25.

(6) Aside from his publications, it is difficult to find information about Hecke. The state agriculture department's, records in the state archives at Sacramento have only a few documents, all dating from 1926, in the Records of the Director, 2. General Correspondence of G. H. Hecke, 1926, folder F3741:7.

(7) USDA, news release, "Risk Too Great to Experiment with Foot-and-Mouth Disease," August 1, 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 July-November," Box 266, Commerce Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library (references to folders in Box 266 of the Commerce Papers hereafter cited by date; e.g., folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 July-November").

(8) Keane, Epizootic, 26-34.

(9) Oakland Tribune, March 8, 1924, 22, March 13, 1924, 17; Jack Klein, "Foot and Mouth Disease," California Cultivator 62 (March 8, 1924): 302.

(10) Oakland Tribune, March 24, 1924, 1, March 25, 1924, 1, March 26, 1924, 1, April 1, 1924, 1; Jack Klein, "Foot and Mouth Disease Spreads," California Cultivator 62 (March 29, 1924): 371; Epizootic, 39-40.

(11) "Emergency Foot and Mouth Regulations," California Cultivator 62 (April 5, 1914): 413, and "University Picnic Canceled," ibid. (March 29, 1924): 375; on the PAC-10 tennis tournament, see Pac-10 Conference of Champions, "Pac-10 200l Tennis Championships Release," sports/c-tennis/spec-rel/042501aad.html, accessed March 9, 2007; Oakland Tribune, April 1, 1924, 1, April 2, 1924, 1, April 3, 1924, 1, April 4, 1921, 26, April 15, 1924, 13; New York Times, April 14, 1924, 15, April 17, 1924, 10; San Francisco Examiner, April 16, 1924, 1.

(12) G. R. Werner to Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, 4 April 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 May-June"; Oakland Tribune, April 10, 1924, 1; New York Times, April 10, 1924, 5, April 12, 1924, 17; Editorial, "Outbreak in Kern," and Jack Klein, "Imperial Valley Quarantines," California Cultivator 62 (April 5, 1924): 398, 414; Spear, "California Besieged," 534-35. For examples of the panicky telegrams sent to Hoover from California business and agricultural representatives, see folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 16-25."

(13) Hoover to President Coolidge, 17 April 1924, Hoover to T. T. C. Gregory, 17 April 1924, Hoover to Governor Friend W. Richardson, 18 April 1924, Richardson to Hoover, 18 April 1924, and Hoover to Coolidge, 18 April 1924, all in folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 16-25"; Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Animal Husbandry (1924), 2. According to a story in the Marysville (California) Appeal (November 2, 1924), Hoover may also have deflected a possible embargo on California agricultural products in New York State by means of a telephone call to Governor Al Smith. See clipping in folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 July-November."

(14) San Francisco Examiner, April 12, 1924, 1, April 18, 1924, 1, April 19, 1924, 1; Oakland Tribune, April 18, 1924, 1.

(15) New York Times, April 19, 1924, 1-2.

(16) New York Times, April 20, 1924, 1, 6; San Francisco Examiner, April 20, 1924, 1-2.

(17) Congressional Record, 68th Cong., 1st sess., May 1, 1924, p. 7631.

(18) San Francisco Examiner, April 21, 1924, 1; Oakland Tribune, April 21, 1924, 1; Jack Klein, "Foot and Mouth Disease," California Cultivator 62 (April 26, 1924): 494; "The Arizona-California Border War," Literary Digest 81 (May 3, 1924): 13; Bureau of Animal Husbandry, Report of the Chief, 2.

(19) Hoover to Flexner, 25 April 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 16-25"; Hoover to the Secretary of Agriculture, I May 1924, folder "Rockefeller Foundation, 1922-1925," Box 528, Commerce Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

(20) Henry C. Wallace to Hoover, 7 May 1924, Hoover to Simon Flexner, 10 May 1924, Flexner to Hoover, 21 May 1924, all in folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 16-25."

(21) Flexner to Hoover, 21 May 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 16-25."

(22) G. H. Hecke, "The Foot and Mouth Epizootic," Monthly Bulletin, Department of Agriculture, State of California (July-December 1925): 138. According to this preliminary report, the total cost of the operation was $6,151,382.75, of which $4,350,008.16 was paid by state and federal authorities to stock owners whose animals were slaughtered. The balance, $1,80l,374.59, was spent for "operating expenses." Hecke provides no specific figures on the costs of disinfecting farms and ranches, but the USDA's 1926 final report on the outbreak lists the equipment and supplies provided for each twenty-four-man cleanup crew and describes a system of supply depots set up around the state to assemble and maintain equipment; Keane, Epizootic, 33. Obviously, the disinfection operation consumed a substantial portion of the $1.8-million-dollar expenditure for operating expenses.

(23) New York Times, April 23, 1924, 25; San Francisco Examiner, April 24, 1924, 1, April 28, 1924, 33; Oakland Tribune, April 25, 1924, 3; Editorial, "A Brighter Outlook," California Cultivator 62 (May 3, 1924): 510; Paul Shoup (President of Southern Pacific Co.) to Hoover, 7 May 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 May-June."

(24) W. H. Hicks to Hoover, 24 April 1924, Hoover to Governor Farrington of Hawaii, 26 April 1924, Farrington to Hoover, 1 May 1924, all in folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 16-25"; C. T. Teague to Hoover, 25 April 1924, Hoover to Will Hays, 26 April 1924, Hays to Hoover, 29 April 1924, all in folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 26-30"; Hecke, "The Foot and Mouth Disease Epizootic," 135; New York Times, June 20, 1924, 5"

(25) Oakland Tribune, April 28, 1924, 6, May 8, 1924, 13, May l0, 1924, 5; San Francisco Examiner, April 29, 1924, 5; New York Times, May 3, 1924, 15, May l0, 1924, 22. The gradual migration of the story from the front to back pages of the papers speaks to the receding sense of threat.

(26) "Foot and Mouth Disease," California Cultivator 62 (June 14, 1924): 666; New York Times, June 22, 1924, 24; USDA, news releases, July 8, August 22, September 10, and September 23, 1924, all in folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 July-November."

(27) E. W. Nelson (Chief, U.S. Biological Ser rice) to F. M. Newbert (President, California Fish & Game Commission), 5 November 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease," 1924 July-November"; Acting Secretary of Agriculture R.W. Dunlap to F. R. Burnham, z May 1925, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1925"; Keane, Epizootic, 50-52.

(28) Reports of an unrelated outbreak of the disease in Texas and Mexico in the late summer of 1924 doubtless reminded Californians of what they had just been through and made them less prone to complain. See New York Times, August 17, 1924, 19; H. Bain (administrative assistant, Department of Agriculture) to Harold Phelps Stokes, 27 September 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 July-November'; "A Deadly Enemy of Cattle," The Outlook 138 (October 29, 1924): 312-13. Donald Spear points out that it is extremely difficult to quantify the economic effects of the epidemic on California's economy; Spear, "California Besieged," 537-39.

(29) "Discovered," California Cultivator 62 (June 7, 1924): 657; New York Times, June 21, 1924, 17, June 26, 1924, 12; "Killing to Cure," The Outlook 137 (July 30, 1924): 495; USDA, news release, October 13, 1925, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1925."

(30) USDA, news release, August 1, 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 July-November"; New York Times, August 3, 1924, 14, August 10, 1924, 9:12.

(31) Simon Flexner to Hoover, 21 May 1924, folder "Hoof and Mouth Disease, 1924 April 16-25."

(32) Spear, "California Besieged," 539.

Kendrick A. Clements is distinguished professor emeritus in the department of history at the University of South Carolina. His publications include "Engineers and Conservationists in the Progressive Era," California History (Winter 1979-80) and Hoover, Conservation, and Consumerism: Engineering the Good Life (University Press of Kansas, 2000). He is currently writing a book about Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce.
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Author:Clements, Kendrick A.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Disease/Disorder overview
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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