This Was Then: The tick scientists

Their 90,000 parasitic French wasps were released to help diminish the Island’s tick population.


In the early 1940s, decades before Lyme disease was discovered, there was the USDA Ticks Affecting Man field laboratory in Vineyard Haven.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, established by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, oversees everything from food safety to the Forest Service. Among their many bureaus was once the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine, which oversaw insect research and control, until it was absorbed by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service agency in 1953.

This government bureau was split into about two dozen divisions, ranging from the Division of Bee Culture to the Division of Fruitfly Investigations. Among them was the Division of Insects Affecting Man and Animals, which was charged with “investigating disease-carrying and annoying insects.” The mosquito was their biggest focus, but the division had labs across the country dedicated to everything from house flies to body lice.

There was exactly one lab dedicated to ticks. The nation’s only Ticks Affecting Man field laboratory was located in Vineyard Haven and had a staff of three: Carroll Smith (assistant entomologist in charge), Moses Cole (science aide), and Harry Gouck (field aide). Smith and his wife rented a home on Tashmoo Avenue, while Cole rented a room on Edgartown Road from the retired antique dealer, “Jump Spark Jim” West. The team spent nearly seven years on the Island, collecting dozens of rabbits, thousands of field mice, and tens of thousands of wood ticks for their studies.

Ticks were extremely rare on the Island before the twentieth century. “Indeed,” wrote entomologist Marshall Hertig in 1937, “some [Islanders] were entirely unacquainted with ticks prior to that time, a situation which gave rise to stories that ticks were brought to the Vineyard from certain foreign ports by such and such a ship.” Although the wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis, also known as the dog tick) has likely been a Vineyard resident for millennia, many have theorized that the decline in sheep farming at the end of the 19th century, the consequent increase in overgrown fields, and the subsequent explosion in the mice population triggered a tick boom in the early 1900s, not only on the Vineyard but on our neighboring islands as well.

Residents of Naushon reportedly brought the first tick scientist to our neighborhood in 1926: Dr. S. Burt Wolbach of Harvard Medical School. Wolbach, a pathologist and bacteriologist, had already made a name for himself studying typhus, African sleeping sickness, the 1918 flu, and a newly recognized threat in Montana once known as “the black measles” and by 1926 renamed Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

Dr. Wolbach imported parasitic wasps known as Chalcid Flies (Ixodiphagus hookeri) from the forests of Fontainebleau, France, and released them on Naushon during the summer of 1926. The following summer it was confirmed that the parasites had survived the winter, and that the tick population was noticeably diminished.

Encouraged by the results of Dr. Wolbach’s experiments, the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club and other Vineyard donors raised money to attempt the same experiments on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1929, Arthur Hertig and Clay Huff, students at Harvard Medical School, were hired to release more wasps. The Chalcids were liberated at several points across the Island, including Edgartown, West Chop, Seven Gates Farm, and Squibnocket. The results were not immediately clear.

In 1936, Vineyarders tried again. Katherine Foote, founder of the Animal Rescue League in Edgartown, raised a new round of funds. She hired Arthur’s older brother, Dr. Marshall Hertig, and recruited the help of author and newspaper editor Henry Beetle Hough. Named the Martha’s Vineyard Woodtick Project, a laboratory was established in the basement of the Animal Rescue League building in Edgartown. Their goal was to determine whether the Chalcid Flies was an effective tick control method, and whether there were other natural or chemical methods of addressing the Island’s tick problem.

Dr. Hertig, a Harvard entomologist who had just returned from a two-year trip to China to study sand flies with his brother Arthur, hired his brother-in-law, David Smiley Jr., to assist him on the new project. Their 1937 study, “The Problem of Controlling Woodticks on Martha’s Vineyard,” was published in the Gazette. The results were mixed.

The Vineyard’s representative in Congress, Charles Gifford, then introduced an amendment to the USDA’s appropriation bill asking for $10,000 of funds to be earmarked to the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine for “attacking the wood-tick problem” in our district, and specifically to continue the Chalcid fly experiments. “I am pleading only for real research work,” Gifford declared in his 1937 address to Congress. “Especially on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, we are afflicted with what you might call a tick infestation.… [the wood tick] is really a most disagreeable pest. The people who are greatly interested are of the class who visit the island in the summer. They have built expensive homes, and often pay more than half the taxes of the community. … In the end they would be very willing to put up the money to control the situation, if the scientists will only tell them how to do it. … Some will not return for their vacation periods over there, and it actually interferes with the prosperity of the sections infested.” Gifford did not mention Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which was definitely on the public’s radar nationally but not yet affecting Massachusetts.

And so the federal “Ticks Affecting Man” field laboratory was established in Vineyard Haven in August, 1937, taking over the project from the Harvard group. (Dr. Arthur Hertig went on to become one of the leading scientists behind the development of the birth control pill. His older brother Marshall became the director of the Gorgas Memorial Research Laboratory in Panama. “I lived with him for one school year in the Panama Canal Zone,” writes his step-grandson, Curt Waldron. “I had no idea who I was staying with! A world-renowned entomologist who had the patience to take on an 8th-grade teenager. He was clever and kind and liked young folks.”)

The new team of Smith, Cole, and Gouck examined everything from the life cycles of ticks (and mice), to a variety of dog dips, to mouse control, to controlled burns. Both Smith and Cole married their spouses on the Island during their stay here.

From 1937 to 1939, a total of 90,000 wasps (Ixodiphagus hookeri) were released on Martha’s Vineyard. But by the project’s end in 1946, the federal team ultimately concluded that this experiment was unsuccessful.

The tick lab was ultimately closed under growing funding pressures from war efforts. Smith and Gouck were eventually reassigned to Florida, where they became leading proponents of the use of DDT in mosquito control. Later, Dr. Smith also oversaw the development of the repellent known as DEET.

In the summer of 1945, Massachusetts recorded its first death from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: a retiree “who had been exposed to many tick bites” in Oak Bluffs. Fred Huss (1874-1945) had been the owner and manager of the Beatrice House hotel and bakery (formerly “Central House”) in Montgomery Square in the Campground from the 1890s until 1933, and Huss and his family continued to live in the Campground until his tick-borne death at the age of 70.

In the 1980s, as the threat of Lyme disease began its rise, there was a resurgence of interest in the work done by the scientists in 1926-1942, and the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a follow-up study on Naushon. To their surprise, they found that 30 percent of the ticks they collected were infested by the wasps, presumably descendants of those released in the 1920s and 30s. Mike Zoll, Bill Wilcox, and Dr. Roy Van Driesche from the University of Massachusetts raised more wasps in cages and once again released them on the Vineyard. Unfortunately, the results of their experiments were, again, mixed.

Check your socks.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.