Poverty or Privies? The Pellagra Controversy in America


  • John Skelton Wichita State University


hookworm infection, hookworm disease, pellagra, vitamin deficiency, Zeist, anti-Zeist


In 1908, Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles, Chief of Zoology for the United States Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, visited Columbia, South Carolina. The stop was part of a fact finding mission dispatched to the southern United States to determine the etiology of indolence; the so-called "disease of the cracker," widely blamed for the long-term economic malaise in the postbellum South. If hunting for the "germ of laziness" seemed a laughable notion, the credentials of the well-connected Connecticuter and European-educated acolyte of Pasteur certainly were not. Stiles was widely considered the nation's foremost expert on hookworm disease and was no stranger to the South by 1908. Indeed, he was an anomaly to the uneasy egoism of the New South; he represented a rare sort of progressive Yankee expert, never deriding Southerners for their perceived backwardness, but rather, demonstrating a heartfelt desire to do whatever was in his power to alleviate rural and small-town misery. During his many visits, Southern newspaper editors and local politicians came to know him and looked forward to his calls, offering what support they could to his cause.1