April 26, 1954, wasn’t an ordinary day at work for Dr. Richard Mulvaney. As McLean, Virginia’s first general practitioner, he treated all types of patients, but he’d never dealt with a situation like the one that awaited him at Franklin Sherman Elementary School that morning.
On October 4, 1989, a primate quarantine unit in Reston received a shipment of 100 monkeys from a Philippine facility. By November, nearly one-third of the animals had died – a much higher percentage than normal – of mysterious causes. Dan Dalgard, the consulting veterinarian of the unit, was alarmed and contacted the US Army Medical Research Institute (USAMRIID). Dalgard talked to Peter Jahrling, a virologist at USAMRIID, who told him to send a few samples of the dead monkeys. Neither one of them was prepared for what they found.
The American Experience film The Forgotten Plague details the impact of Tuberculosis on American society. TB was a problem everywhere. But, the disease hit few places as hard as it hit Washington, D.C. In fact, according to a 1934 report by the District Medical Society, only Memphis, San Antonio and New Orleans had higher death rates among large cities in the United States.
The stats were alarming. They were also somewhat surprising, at least according to some. As the DMS report noted, since D.C. “is less congested and the economic situation is better than in any other city in this country, we should have one of the lowest death rates.” However, the rate in the nation’s capital was “higher even than that of Baltimore, where congestion and the economic situation are notoriously unfavorable.” (Sorry, Baltimore, apparently you were the measuring stick for terrible public health in the 1930s.)
What better treat for a president-elect waiting to move into the White House than to stay in one of the swankiest hotels in the capital? Well, as it turns out, James Buchanan would have done better to have found less plush accomodations in the spring of 1857. He and hundreds of others fell victim to a mysterious ailment after staying at the luxurious National Hotel.
This sickness, because it came at the end of a harsh campaign against the victorious Buchanan, was thought by many to arise from a poison. Fingers were pointed at various political opponents; even the Spanish government in Cuba was blamed.