“It is going to be much easier to find children of ten and eleven years of age with hookworm than without.”
Letter from Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles to Wickliffe Rose, August 15, 1912, commenting on finding subjects for studying hookworm treatment in the American South
Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles was a zoologist and public health official who played an instrumental role in the eradication of hookworm disease in the American South.
Born in 1867 in Spring Valley, New York, Stiles studied science in Europe, including terms spent at universities in Berlin, Leipzig and Paris.
Stiles became an expert in intestinal parasites, and in 1891 he returned to the United States to serve as a zoologist with the Department of Agriculture. In this position he focused on the problem of parasites in farm animals. This research introduced him to the parasitic hookworm and led to his discovery of the American hookworm, a species unique from its European counterpart. He became intrigued by the hookworm’s effect on human health, and his research gradually included the causes and symptoms of hookworm disease among humans.
Stiles was transferred to the U.S. Public Health Service in 1902, a position that allowed him to continue researching and teaching zoology. During that same year he began a campaign to eradicate hookworm disease from the American South. He advocated for better sanitation facilities and encouraged both the practice of wearing shoes outdoors and the use of thymol to treat the disease.
However, the campaign met with little success. A meeting with Walter Hines Page, who in turn introduced Stiles to a number of important Rockefeller contacts and the work of the General Education Board (GEB), rejuvenated his efforts. These meetings led to the creation of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission (RSC) in 1909, an organization that funded a massive and successful public health campaign aimed at eradicating hookworm in the American South.
In his work with RSC, Stiles was on the front lines – diagnosing and treating hookworm disease, campaigning for better sanitation and educating local populations on the causes and effects of the disease. He initially faced stiff opposition from some of the populations among whom he worked, who mocked and questioned his and the RSC’s efforts. However, thorough and conclusive research, coupled with the RSC’s massive educational campaign, successfully lowered rates of the disease in the American South.
Stiles’ greatest achievement was not the discovery of American hookworm, but his success in bringing the disease to the public’s attention and in creating awareness of its many consequences. His tireless efforts led to permanent solutions in the field of hygiene and sanitation - changes that can be directly attributed to helping to modernize the American South and to change opinions about public health issues.
The reports of Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles to the RSC can be found in the records of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease Records, 1909-1915, Box 3, Files 72 to 77 at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).