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The 1930 Guinea Pig Epidemic

In the early 1930s, Professor Roy A. Waggener became Chairman of Carleton’s new Zoology Department. Much of his research until the middle of that decade focused on the thyroid gland in canines. In fall 1936, Waggener procured guinea pigs from E. G. Steinhilber, of Wisconsin, whose letterhead said, “Dealer in anything that crawls, swims, flies, hops or jumps.” The guinea pigs were to be used for comparisons of metabolic rates between control animals and experimental specimens. His experiments were disrupted, however, when the guinea pigs started dying of unknown causes.

On October 27, 1936, Professor Waggener wrote to University of Minnesota pathologist Dr. E. T. Bell regarding the dying rodents. “We are conducting some experimental work with guinea pigs and have lost large numbers from our colony recently. Necropsies suggest tuberculosis. We have preserved some lung tissue, stomach, spleen and other organs in Bowen’s solution and would like to send the same for examination.”

Dr. Bell replied on November 16, “The organs from the guinea pig which you sent me show no tuberculosis.… I presume this is some infectious disease which terminates in bronchopneumonia. It would require a good deal of bacteriologic work to determine what the disease is, but I presume your chief interest is in ruling out tuberculosis.”

On March 23, 1938, Waggener wrote to Dr. Myron Weaver of Eli Lilly and Company, an Indianapolis pharmaceutical company that was the first to mass-produce penicillin and the polio vaccine. “We have been having a hectic time here in the laboratory since Christmas with some type of epidemic exterminating our guinea pigs. To date I have not been able to continue my studies on the metabolic rate in the guinea pig…. I am not in any hurry for metabolic data in as much as I have not been able to keep guinea pigs alive in the laboratory here for more than five to six to seven weeks.

“Perhaps I told you that last year I purchased a rather large shipment of guinea pigs from a dealer in Wisconsin sometime in October, and began to lose my animals in December and January. Within a month or two, I had lost my entire colony. We were unable to determine the cause of the epidemic at that time. We studied the symptoms and sent some lung tissue and organs to the pathologist at the University of Minnesota, but he was unable to give us much help….”

At the University, a Dr. Dungay and his student examined bacterial flora (microorganisms) from the guinea pigs’ digestive tracts, but test results were inconclusive. His guinea pig colony deceased, Professor Waggener disinfected the cages and lab facilities in Laird Hall, then still one of the science buildings. A new supply of guinea pigs arrived, but they, too, contracted the sickness. Approximately 100 animals died in the first three months of 1938.

Waggener continued in his letter to Eli Lilly: “I solicited Mrs. Burnstan’s interest in the problem. She is working toward her Ph.D. and M.D. at Northwestern in Chicago…. After making films and some preliminary examinations, she took some of her material to Northwestern…. They confirmed her diagnosis, namely, that we had an epidemic of diphtheria in our colony…. It is too soon to tell whether the antitoxin will save them or not.”

Shortly thereafter, Waggener exterminated the remaining pigs and lab rats and fumigated the laboratories. In May 1938, he ordered a new supply of critters at a price of eighty cents each from Trans-Mississippi Biological Supply. In the meantime, he maintained correspondence with E. G. Steinhilber, the Wisconsin dealer who had supplied the deceased rodents from two years earlier. Over the summer, the guinea pig colony’s death rate declined and the animals appeared healthy. In 1940, Waggener met with Dr. Carl Schlotthauer at the Mayo Clinic to discuss the epidemic. Correspondence indicates that the pig problem had finally subsided.

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