Public Distrust of Pandemic Science? There’s a History of That in Hamilton
Protests against how the state and federal government is handling coronavirus have surged across the country and in Montana. Most recently, animal rights protestors gathered outside Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton where scientists are hard at work on a vaccine. But public opposition to scientific efforts has a long history in Montana.
Nick Mott looks at what public resistance to a mysterious disease creeping into the Bitterroot Valley at the turn of the twentieth century can teach about the current response to coronavirus. This story is part of a series that looks at lasting ways Montana adapts during a public health crisis. It’s funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.
Spring is in the air. The world is getting restless, getting ready to wake up.
In the 1937 movie Green Light, Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn plays a doctor investigating a devastating new ailment plaguing a remote town in Montana.
"Most places, it means new life. But here in the Bitterroot Valley, it means new death."
The story of a heroic doctor infecting himself with the disease to find a cure is fictional, but it’s based in truth. In the early 1900s, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a deadly tick-borne disease, was erupting in the Bitterroot. No one knew exactly what caused it or how to cure it.
"At the turn of the century, we’re just getting our toes wet into what we call modern medicine," Victoria Harden, a retired historian formerly with the National Institues of Health, says.
Harden wrote the book on the history of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, literally. She says the mountains west of the Bitterroot River had been logged for local mills. Where the trees were cut down, scrub and brush grew back, and that new vegetation made a perfect home for ticks.
State entomologists and physicians from across the country descended on the area and set to work, trying to control the spread of what became known as the “black measles.” But some members of the public weren’t so sure of the outsiders’ expertise.
"The one thing that’s always so hard anytime there’s a new disease is that people only know what they know, and they tend to make analogies with what they know," Harden says, adding the same is true of coronavirus today.
At the time, people swore by age-old cures like tea made from sage. Some thought the disease could come from bad life choices or even the will of God. Deaths from the disease went underreported due to the stigma that came with it.
While people coped with the daily reality of spotted fever, researchers tried to stamp out ticks entirely. State entomologists dunked cattle into tanks full of a solution meant to get rid of ticks. The thing is, that solution was full of arsenic, and ranchers weren’t happy about it.
Marshall Bloom is associate director of scientific management at Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton.
"And on a couple of occasions, a couple of those dip tanks - which i think is what they were called - they actually got blown up. By presumably, I don’t think they ever caught anybody, some of the ranchers who were unhappy with that measure," Bloom says.
Meanwhile, federal researchers were at work researching a vaccine. Soon, they found some success using a solution made from ground-up ticks. By the late 1920s, a permanent lab had been proposed just outside the city of Hamilton where that tick research could carry on. But some locals felt the disease could escape the lab.
"There was a movement among a few citizens in the town of Hamilton to stop the construction of that laboratory and they actually filed a suit," Bloom said.
The judge ruled in favor of the scientists. The building laid the backbone for what would eventually become one of only a few labs in the U.S. that are classified Biosafety Level 4. They’re the ones cleared to deal with the world’s most dangerous diseases. Rocky Mountain Labs have pioneered research on ticks and other deadly infections unabated for nearly a century.
People still get Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever every year. But it only kills about half a percent of people who get infected, since antibiotics became available in the 1940s, thanks in large part to the work done at Rocky Mountain Labs.
That initial resistance to tick research has gone away. But Bloom says history repeats itself; other public fears and push-back have come in waves as the lab has taken on new and deadly diseases, like ebola.
"All you can do is tell people the truth. If they don’t like it, that’s a different matter," Bloom says.
Bloom says the keys to progress are openness, transparency and honesty. Starting in those early days of tick research, he says the lab has prioritized taking community input into its decision-making.
He and historian Victoria Harden say the romance of the movies make for a pretty picture.
"You’ve done it, Newell, found a vaccine."
But the nitty gritty reality wasn’t the stuff of Hollywood.
"It was step-by-step, scientific research," Harden says.
Today, the staff at Rocky Mountain Labs has shifted its attention entirely over to coronavirus. Five teams of researchers are investigating vaccines and treatments. They’re also studying how the virus behaves and leading important research about how long it lives on surfaces. In addition, the most widely used and accurate images of the virus originated from RML’s electron microscopes.
When a vaccine does emerge, it’s likely this lab in Montana will have played a role in its creation; even if Hollywood’s no longer watching.