Rocky Mountain Laboratories:
Canyon Creek Schoolhouse Laboratory
The brick schoolhouse in Canyon Creek, Montana, on a snowy day after it had become an official field station of the U.S. Public Health Service, circa 1921. Image: Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, 1006
The Canyon Creek Schoolhouse was located in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, an up-and-coming agricultural and business area in the early 1900s. In May 1910, the Western News printed a 27-page supplement called the “Bitter Root Valley Illustrated” describing the valley’s businesses, orchards and farmland, industry, and civic and religious life. What the supplement didn’t mention was that a highly fatal disease killed some residents every spring—and there was no prevention or treatment for it. The disease was Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF).
Object: Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, 18.10.1
Why did Dr. Frank J. O'Donnell write his name and the date "Dec. 20, 1924" on the 1910 supplement? As a field agent for the Montana State Board of Entomology, O'Donnell did control work for the prevention of RMSF and other tick-borne diseases endemic to the valley. Two notable things had happened in his life that year: He went from being a Montana state employee to a U.S. Public Health Service staff member, and he helped begin production of RMSF vaccine, enabling the promise of the Bitter Root Valley supplement to come true.
Note that “Bitterroot” is today’s preferred spelling.
Early residents of the Bitterroot Valley called the disease “black measles,” “blue disease,” “black typhus,” or just “fever.” RMSF appeared in the valley after the slope had been cleared of trees for timber to make railway ties for the Northern Pacific Railroad, leaving the perfect environment for ticks. In 1902, the State of Montana asked scientists to investigate the mysterious disease. In less than 22 years, researchers identified what caused the disease, how it was transmitted to humans, and created a life-saving vaccine. This was nearly a miracle in an age with little knowledge of microbiology and only basic technology.
This drawing shows the spotted fever rash on a leg. It was drawn in 1903 by Dr. John F. Anderson when he became one of the first scientists to investigate Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Montana. Anderson was a U.S. Public Health Service officer assigned to the Hygienic Laboratory, which later became the National Institutes of Health.
Read his report. (20 MB) Image: Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, 1533-1
Encased in these pendants are Dermacentor andersoni ticks, the first tick species identified as transmitting RMSF. Making jewelry might strike us as an odd thing to do with ticks, but these trinkets symbolize the victory over RMSF that the researchers at the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse laboratory enabled with their tireless and extremely dangerous work developing a vaccine. The pendants also reference other diseases carried by insects that the scientists would go on to research, including typhus, tularemia, mosquito-borne encephalitis, and plague.
This keychain and pendant belonged to Dr. Ralph R. Parker, who played a major role in Rocky Mountain spotted fever research, and who was director of the Rocky Mountain Laboratory (then singular) in Hamilton, Montana, from 1927 to 1949. Object: Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum, 98.2.1-2
Infectious disease research has come a long way in the 100 years since the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse became a laboratory to study Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Today the Rocky Mountain Laboratories inhabit an entire campus where scientists conduct basic research on tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, as well as prion diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Ebola, and coronavirus diseases like SARS, MERS, and COVID-19. Visit more of this online history to learn about the people and their work 100 years ago at the Canyon Creek Schoolhouse laboratory.
The Rocky Mountain Laboratories campus is snuggled in the valley below Downing Mountain in 2017. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories