In fall of 1973, residents on the island of Nantucket were treated to a curious sight: a lone scientist traipsing through underbrush, waving a giant white flag.
Its bearer, Andrew Spielman, wasn’t surrendering. Spielman, a vector-borne disease expert at Harvard School of Public Health, was using the cloth to capture deer ticks—tiny arachnids he suspected of causing a human outbreak of babesiosis, a rare blood-borne disease that infected two Nantucket residents.
After weeks in the field, Spielman discovered that white-footed mice, a common species on the island, were often covered with larval ticks that carried the disease. Later research showed that ticks like these were responsible not only for cases of human babesiosis, but for the newly-identified Lyme disease, which had just begun to emerge in southern New England.
In response, Spielman began developing strategies to control the tick population, and by the late 1980s, stumbled on an ingenious solution with colleagues—they soaked cotton balls in pesticide, stuffed them into empty toilet paper rolls, and left them in the brush. Mice, which found the cotton irresistible for building nests, carried the pesticide back to their dens, where it killed off the ticks nestled in their skin. Within a single season, the researchers found, the number of deer ticks found on trapped mice had dropped by more than 90 percent.
Spielman’s groundbreaking work didn’t stop at ticks, however. His research also helped identify mosquitoes as vectors for both the Eastern equine encephalitis virus, and later, for West Nile virus—a disease he suspected was carried in the blood of roosting birds.
Although Spielman personally tracked down the vector for a number of dangerous diseases, he was always careful to frame his work within the larger context of public health. “I am not a mosquito specialist. I am not a tick specialist. I am a transmission specialist,” he mused in 1997. “That is what public health entomology is all about.”
David Levin is a freelance science writer based in Boston. He can be reached through his website at www.therealdavidlevin.com.
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