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Scientists: The Unsung Heroes of the American West

Cattle Drive c. 1900. Not pictured: epidemiologists who made it possible

The American West of popular memory has a familiar cast of characters—cowpunchers, homesteaders, gold-seekers, heroic Native warriors and prancing cavalrymen.  All did have their roles, but another figure is rarely seen:  the scientist.

That’s unfortunate.  The West was acquired and came into focus as a distinctive part of the nation during the second half of the 19th century.  Globally, those same years were ones of extraordinary advances in a variety of scientific fields.  The two overlapped in fact as well as time.  The West of cattle drives and Indian wars was also one of the most active and productive scientific laboratories on earth.  From it came two of the weightiest developments of the era.

The range of work was remarkable.  In the 1850s scientists on surveys of possible rail routes to the Pacific documented hundreds of new species of animals and gathered information on dozens of Native peoples.  The cost of the lavishly published results accounted for more than a fourth of the nation’s budget. After the Civil War federal surveys mapping the new country and exploring its resources collected vast materials on zoology (from birds and snakes to butterflies and prairie dogs), botany (including paleobotany), and meteorology.  In the relatively new fields of anthropology and archeology, field agents documented lifeways, houses, family systems, and glossaries of cultures from the Dakotas to California and revealed remains of earlier civilizations, including the ruins of Colorado’s Mesa Verde. Especially vigorous work in geology brought new understandings of the earth’s history and the mechanics of its endless shaping.

The West’s two most notable contributions were in fields undergoing arguably the most dynamic changes of all.  One addressed the most contested and emotionally charged question of the day, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Paleontology, the study of fossils of ancient creatures, bore directly on that question.  It experienced an explosion of interest during these years, nowhere more than in the West.  On the Great Plains and in the Southwest hundreds of extinct species were unearthed, identified, and arranged by time and by relationships to one another. The emerging picture was of a western menagerie stretching over millions of years.

The two most famous “bone hunters” were Othniel C. Marsh, a Yale professor, and Edward Drinker Cope, a wealthy independent researcher.  Their bitter competition made front-page news, but much of the work on the ground was by westerners caught up in the exploration of ancient life.  William “Bill” Reed, a meat hunter for the Union Pacific Railroad, caught Marsh’s eye with finds in Wyoming.  He became the professor’s top field man.  As a teenager Charles Sternberg joined his brother on a western Kansas ranch, fell in love with fossils, and went on to be one of the century’s most successful paleontologists.

Work under Marsh’s direction led to discoveries that together were a long stride toward confirming Darwin’s ideas.  Darwin theorized that every living animal had evolved from earlier forms by a series of gradual changes over unimaginable stretches of time.  OK, his critics said, prove it.  Marsh did.  Collecting fossilized toes and feet of plains horses from the Eocene to the Pliocene, he showed conclusively how one species had led to another and another up to the present.  The links clicked together into the field’s first evolutionary chain.

Such chains are in turn related, Darwin argued.  They might grow in wildly different directions, but trace them far enough back and you will find that they come from some common beginning. He speculated, for instance, that reptiles and birds had both evolved from dinosaurs. Pigeons and rattlesnakes were distant cousins. Interesting, his critics said again, but where’s the proof?  And again Marsh provided it. In the plains chalkbeds he found a collection of early aquatic birds with teeth and leg bones clearly related to reptiles. His prime example he called Hesperornis regalis, “the royal bird of the West.” Darwin deemed it the best support for his theories since his Origin of Species.

The other grand breakthrough was in epidemiology, the study of diseases.  As with paleontology, the field had recently seen extraordinary advances.  With the confirmation of the germ theory, in the last third of the century scientists identified the causes of dozens of age-old diseases, from diphtheria and cholera to whooping cough and typhoid.  A great mystery remained, however. How those maladies and others spread was clear enough.  An ill person passed along a microbial agent directly via touch or contaminated breath, water, or food.  But that was clearly not the case with such contagions as malaria, plague, yellow fever and other killers.

The key was found in wrestling with a problem arising from western ranching’s famous cattle drives.  When Texas longhorns mingled with cattle in northern markets, the latter quickly developed a fever that usually killed them.  Two young scientists, Theobald Smith and F. L. Kilbourne, were tapped to solve the problem. They quickly identified a parasite as the microbial culprit, but how it moved from cow to cow stumped them. Through ingenious experiments and a lot of luck, they found that the parasite made its move, not directly between animals, as everyone assumed all diseases moved, but through ticks that ingested it and passed it along to the next animals they bit.

In trying to save an emerging western industry, Smith and Kilbourne discovered a wholly new category of contagions, “vector” diseases transmitted through mosquitoes, fleas, flies, and other intermediaries. When Smith and Kilbourne published their report in 1891, the epidemiological community breathed a collective “Aha!”  Within a decade others had unpuzzled the spread of malaria, sleeping sickness, and yellow fever.

Such accomplishments ought to remind us that, for all the well deserved fascination for events portrayed in numberless novels, films, and television programs, the American West was also a stage where a small army of scientists labored well at cultivating a deeper understanding of our world, including the evolution of life and why and how we sicken and die.