Howard Taylor Ricketts


Typhus hunter

Handsome, ambitious, and dead at 39, Howard T. Ricketts tried to unravel the mystery of a Mexico City epidemic.

Around 1910, Mexico City became the scene for experiments in politics, art, and urban planning. As the UChicago historian Mauricio Tenorio Trillo notes in a new book, the city also served as an object of scientific study, laboratory, and “host of the passions and adventures of the world’s bacteriologists.”

Typhus fever, known locally as tabardillo, persisted endemically in the Mexican capital from colonial times. Often it reached epidemic levels, spreading with devastating efficiency in prisons, poor neighborhoods, and hospitals. In 1909 the government of Porfirio Diaz announced it would award a 50,000-peso prize for the discovery of the cause and cure of typhus.

Howard Taylor Ricketts—a University of Chicago pathologist who had discovered that ticks carried and spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever—was one of the foreign scientists who answered the call. He brought along his medical student, Russell Wilder, AS 1905, SB 1907, PhD 1912, a recent graduate of the College. They set up shop at the city’s Instituto de Bacteriología in early 1910, eager to gather and examine data and publish results as quickly as possible.

The pair visited Mexico City’s notorious Belém prison, where lice and typhus were both endemic. Although an Ohio State researcher had already succumbed to the disease, Ricketts wrote to a colleague in April, “I am a lucky fellow.” But his letters also complained about “spying” by Mexican scientists who asked questions about his research. “Ricketts and Wilder did not leave their notes on the laboratory desks, not even when they left for lunch,” writes Tenorio. “Mexicans were, he thought, stealing their lice and observing their monkeys.”

As the competition among teams grew heated, Ricketts published four articles on his findings, mostly in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The essays, argues Tenorio, “were Ricketts’s way of marking his domain, typhus, as a lion pees.”

Ricketts and Wilder successfully located the germ that caused typhus, proved that the body louse was the transmission agent, and explored the difference between tabardillo and the disease’s European strain. Then, Ricketts fell ill and died of typhus on May 3, in a tent that was set up to prevent contagion in the gardens of Mexico City’s American Hospital.

In the end, no one was awarded the 50,000-peso prize. The definitive cause and cure for typhus would be proven later by other scientists, including Henrique da Rocha Lima, who identified the typhus germ in 1916 and named it Rickettsia prowazekii in honor of Ricketts and a Czech martyr to the disease. Typhus was defeated gradually in Mexico City, writes Tenorio, with “a mixture of sanitary measures, medicine, insecticides, and education.”

Meanwhile, at Argonne National Laboratory, the work that Ricketts began a century ago continues with modern updates. Scientists at the Howard T. Ricketts Regional Biocontainment Laboratory conduct research on biodefense-related and emerging infectious diseases—from anthrax to the plague to new strains spread by bioterrorists.