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Monday, May 5, 2003

Robert Mehnert
or Kathy Cravedi
NLM Public Info
(301) 496-6308

Papers of Public Health Expert, Fred Lowe Soper Added to Profiles in Science

Bethesda, Maryland — He was a public health scientist who cruised tropical rivers and hacked his way through jungles — a man who tirelessly fought hookworm, yellow fever, malaria and typhus fever in countries all over the world. His name is Fred Lowe Soper, M.D., M.P.H. (1893-1977), a modest, hard-working scientist, whose correspondence, diaries, published articles and reports, and photographs now live in cyberhistory as part of the National Library of Medicine's Profiles in Science, profiles.nlm.nih.gov.

In the early 1920's, Soper organized campaigns to control hookworm in South America. In 1929 he conceived and administered the public health campaign that wiped out epidemic yellow fever in Brazil. Ten years later he applied the same strategy to eliminate epidemic malaria. During World War II, he perfected and implemented innovative methods to control the dangerous typhus fever that threatened the Allied forces' advance into Italy.

"In the international public health community, Fred Soper stands out as one of the twentieth century's foremost practitioners of preventive medicine and public health. Millions of people around the world owe their lives to his exceptional talent for organizing and administering difficult projects, and his skill in selecting and improving tools for eradicating insect disease vectors," said Dr. Alexa McCray, who heads up the Profiles Project.

Fred Soper was born in Kansas, and earned his M.D. from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1918. Recruited by the Rockefeller Foundation right out of medical school, he spent the next 27 years on the staff of its International Health Division, mostly in South America. He learned the basics of effective public health administration while directing hookworm control programs in Brazil and Paraguay. He soon turned his expertise to mosquito-borne diseases.

Yellow fever and malaria, both mosquito-borne, were among the most serious tropical diseases. He recounts in one journal entry (April 25, 1929) about another physician treating yellow fever: "Today he saw bad cases, dying cases, and dead cases. It is not a pretty sight."

Soper often worked under the most primitive conditions. He sometimes traveled on horseback, slogged through mud, and one photo shows his car being hauled down the river on a primitive raft.

Malaria could be treated with quinine drugs, and a vaccine became available for yellow fever in the late 1930s, but Soper believed that successful control would depend on eradicating the mosquitoes.

Building on existing public health services in Brazil, he launched a tightly organized attack. Teams of inspectors conducted regular surveys of houses and other buildings, kept meticulous records of adult mosquitoes and larvae, and destroyed or treated all possible breeding places. By 1940, Brazil was effectively free of both diseases.

During World War II, Soper was sent to the Mediterranean theater of operations as part of the U.S.A. Typhus Commission. There he again found efficient and cost-effective methods for controlling the human body louse, the insect that carried typhus fever. His work on typhus also provided one of the first field tests for a new insecticide, DDT. (Soper himself fell ill to typhus.)

As Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) from 1947 to 1959, Soper expanded its budget and activities and secured its place as the Regional Office for the Americas of the new World Health Organization.

The online exhibit features not only Soper's correspondence, diaries, articles, and photographs, but also operations manuals for disease control campaigns. Visitors to the site can view, for example, Soper's detailed, day-by-day account of the yellow fever epidemic in his 1929-1930 diaries, or photos of his de-lousing operations in wartime Naples.

"Profiles in Science" was launched September 1998 by the National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The site is a continuing project and the Library plans to announce each new collection as it is added.

Note to Editors: Files of high resolution photographs of Dr. Soper are available from NLM. Email requests to publicinfo@nlm.nih.gov.

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