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From Schoolhouse to Laboratory

When the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse became a laboratory in September 1921, it was initially rented by the Montana State Board of Entomology for $15 a month because the U.S. Public Health Service was not yet involved in the tick studies. But once the federal agency had sent Dr. Roscoe Spencer and other officers to help the investigation, the laboratory became a field station of the Public Health Service. Citizens of the Bitterroot Valley helped to renovate the schoolhouse into a laboratory with some aid from Red Cross donations. A fence was built to help keep people and non-laboratory animals out—and to keep infected animals in.

Two-story brick building with U.S. Public Health Service sign and cars from 1920s parked in front on winter's day

The sign on the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse was changed to proclaim the building’s new function as a laboratory under the U.S. Public Health Service, although the day-to-day running of the laboratory was done by Dr. Ralph Parker, a Montana State Board of Entomology employee at the time. Circa 1924. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 196

Slanted winter evening light on back yard with large wood cage enclosure for animals.

The rear of the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse laboratory building on a snowy day. In addition to the animal housing shown here, there was a shed for the scientists’ vehicles and plenty of wood to keep the building warm. Circa 1924. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 172

In August 1921, a month before the new Canyon Creek Schoolhouse laboratory would open, a Missoulian newspaper reporter wrote that the laboratory would be run by Dr. Ralph Parker, who would be “vested with unlimited authority by the government, the state and the county, and who will not be denied any and all assistance on the part of local people that it may be possible for them to give.”  The lab would also employ not just researchers but a stenographer, a bookkeeper, and a maintenance crew to see that all was kept safe. The laboratory was much more spacious and solid than any so far used for this research.

  • Quote from “Property Leased for Tick Fever Laboratory,” The Missoulian, Aug. 21, 1921.

Man bends over a microscope on a counter with light flooding window

Dr. Ralph Parker peered into his dissecting microscope in his office/laboratory at the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse laboratory, circa 1921. A monocular microscope sat beside him. The laboratory had electricity and large windows for light. The sink was in an indentation in the wall behind him, under a shelf of chemical bottles, with the towels hung on the wall. A map of Rocky Mountain spotted fever’s occurrence sat on a table in the foreground on the right. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 471


Large room with wood floor and wood counters down the middle and along walls

Dr. Ralph Parker’s laboratory/office, east side view, circa 1921. On the table built around the column was a scale encased in wood and glass to keep air movement from affecting the weighing of small amounts of material. To the left of his desk was the reference library, while to the right was some chemical storage. A candlestick telephone sat on the desk in front of the window. Boxes and card files of records were piled on the center map counter. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 162

Other side of large room with wood counters and shelves and three large windows

The laboratory/office of Dr. Ralph Parker overlooking the car shed outside, circa 1921. The map counter in the foreground was a necessity; keeping track of where cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever occurred and where different kinds of ticks were found was an important part of the research. A microscope illuminator was set up just below the window on the left—it looked like a camera. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 163

corner with counters on both sides

The far corner of the office/laboratory, circa 1921. Rows of chemicals stood on shelves above the map of Rocky Mountain spotted fever cases. Next to the glass bell jar instrument cover were likely metal canisters containing pipettes. The white unit on the counter-top is either a double-walled hot air sterilizer or an oven for drying glassware. Next to that a copper retort is connected by its neck to a zinc condenser. The liquid in the retort was heated and the condensation ran into the condenser, where it was cooled to make a refined liquid. This was an old-fashioned way to do laboratory distillations even in the 1920s, but it produced a good amount of liquid. The Canyon Creek Schoolhouse laboratory would have had to fill out special paperwork for the U.S. Treasury certifying why they were using it; such distillation set-ups were commonly used as stills by bootleggers during the years of Prohibition. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 484


Rows of cages on racks in animal room

The guinea pigs used to feed the ticks were kept in an animal room on the upper story of the Canyon Creek Laboratory. Those that were healthy had to be kept separate from those who carried the Rocky Mountain spotted fever bacteria. 

Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 156

A desk and chair with closet and metal heater

A work area behind the cages included the operating table under the window, a desk and chair, and a shower in the corner. The operating table was where ticks were taken off or put on the guinea pigs. The large canister between the windows was most likely used to heat water for the shower. 

Images: Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, 1115

The researchers developed their own equipment over the years at both the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse Laboratory and the later Building One laboratory building. They adapted and invented equipment to both keep them safe from tick bites and to make their jobs a little easier. Dr. Robert Cooley, head entomologist, took these photos of some of their inventions in 1931 after they had moved to Building One.

Three metal, stand-alone cabinets. The middle one is open to show white coats on hangars.

These cabinets were designed to heat the clothes that the workers wore in the laboratory to a temperature high enough to kill any ticks hiding in them. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 215

Gadget sits on wood counter. Electrical cord is strung on wall to motor.

Grinding so many ticks by hand would have been tiring; it would also have slowed down production of the Rocky Mountain spotted fever vaccine for use around the United States. So the researchers used an electric motor (right) to drive a crank and shaft device that moved a pestle in a mortar (bowl on stand on left). This machine was a prototype for later automatic tick grinders that could handle increased production without injuring anyone’s elbow. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 231

Canister with wide tapered nozzle fits into a large narrow flask of ticks.

Several “guns” were developed too. One separated adult living tick parasites from the tick nymphs they had destroyed. This one was used to separate adult ticks from their nymphal skins. These tools were also an attempt to increase the efficiency of making the Rocky Mountain spotted fever vaccine. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, 302