Parrot Fever — the 1929 pandemic

by Spencer Howard

The fall of 1929 is typically remembered for the October stock market crash, but did you know that 1929 also witnessed a pandemic scare, one that ended almost as soon as it started?  It wasn’t Covid-19 or even the Spanish Flu;  it was Parrot Fever.

Newspaper headline calling attention to Parrot Fever  in 1929.
New York Sun newspaper headline calling attention to Parrot Fever in 1929.

Known to science as Psittacosis, parrot fever is caused by a bacteria that infects numerous species of birds, and can occasionally be transmitted to humans.  It typically results in pneumonia-like symptoms, and untreated can cause serious illness resulting in a mortality rate of 15% to 30% or more.  In 1929, the disease was little understood, and a Christmas-time outbreak caused panic throughout the United States.

As was typical at the time, tens of thousands of exotic birds were imported into the U.S. each year for the pet market, mostly from Central and South America.  Scant attention was paid to reports in the summer and fall of an outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness in Argentina.  The U.S. Public Health Service later noted, “Beginning in November 1929, the occurrence of an unusual sickness, resembling influenza and typhoid fever, with a high mortality rate, began to be reported in various sections of the United States.”

Shortly after Christmas more cases began popping up, almost exclusively in households where someone had received a parrot for Christmas.  In early January, front-page accounts of this deadly outbreak sowed panic across the country, leading local authorities to close or quarantine pet shops.  Worried bird owners were encouraged to kill their pets, and there were widespread stories of exotic birds abandoned at zoos or released into the wild.  The panic soon faded as cases remained rare, and “parrot fever” became something of a joke.  In the meantime, the Public Health Service began to investigate.

Based on the preliminary research, a ban on imported birds was deemed advisable.  On January 24, 1930, President Herbert Hoover issued Executive Order 5264, which temporarily blocked the importation of parrots into the U.S.  But at the Public Health Service, the investigation turned tragic as eleven employees of the Hygienic Laboratory eventually fell ill with the disease and one died.  To stop the outbreak at the lab, the Hygienic Laboratory director, George McCoy, evacuated the laboratory, euthanized all the lab animals (even the non-avian species) and had the rooms thoroughly fumigated.

The investigation and its unfortunate turn of events put the Hygienic Laboratory in the news, and highlighted the need for more funding and better facilities.  In April, Senator Joseph E. Ransdell (D-LA) introduced a bill to expand the Hygienic Laboratory and rename it the National Institute of Health.  The bill authorized $750,000 for construction of two buildings for the NIH, and the new agency was granted authorization to fund research fellowships.  These fellowships allowed the NIH to greatly expand its medical and public health research by funding studies in medical schools, universities and the private sector.  The Ransdell Act was signed into law by President Hoover on May 26, 1930.

Over the next few years, the National Institute of Health continued to study parrot fever (it would take many years before the causative bacteria was positively identified) and joined international efforts to study and contain outbreaks of the disease.  Occasional outbreaks of parrot fever were readily controlled, and no longer caused public panic.

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