While browsing the pages of our historical newspaper collection, we stumbled upon an article featuring Jean Dawson. An educator, Dawson, led a seemingly successful campaign against the housefly in the 1900s to combat the spread of diseases like polio.
In the early 1900s, polio was making its way across the United States. However, records show known cases of polio traced back to ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. Approximately 2,000 cases were reported in the US in 1907, with most cases located in the northeast. By 1916, New York became the epicenter of one of the most significant polio outbreaks in US history.
Polio (short for poliomyelitis) is a viral disease that affects the nervous system and can cause paralysis. However, most people (72%) with polio do not exhibit symptoms. Today, we know that polio spreads through contact (person to person); however, in the early 1900s, it was believed that flies were primary transmitters for polio and other diseases.
Swat the Fly Campaign
To combat and prevent the further spread of disease, an “anti-fly campaign” began in the early 1900s in the US. This effort involved government agencies, schools, businesses, and other civic groups led by public health officials.
Print media played a significant role in this campaign. Magazines & newspapers were utilized as means to disseminate information throughout the country. These publications educated the public on the biology of the housefly, its feeding habits, and offered guidance on how to eradicate the fly. Most of the messaging was framed in terms of war, playing on the public’s fears, tugging at readers’ emotions as a way to get them to act.
America’s Most Famous Woman Fly Fighter
Jean Dawson, known as the “Chief Fly Swatter” is known for having led a successful charge in fighting the fly. Dawson was from Cleveland, OH, where she served as head of the biology department for the city’s public schools. As an educator, Dawson was “able to get in educative fly-swatting work on the youngsters.” When not training new fly-swatters, she taught biology in Cleveland schools. An article published in the Pensacola Journal noted “Cleveland is going to wake up some day and find that it has one of the biggest women in the country running the biology department of its public schools.”
Dawson promoted and heavily emphasized the importance of keeping things clean and disposing of trash properly. In I am the Baby Killer: House Flies and the Spread of Polio, Dawson acknowledged that teachers were essential to this effort. She firmly believed that the best way to eradicate flies was to prevent them from breeding. Teaching people in the community the fly’s life cycle and instructing them on how to prevent the reproduction cycle was vital to accomplishing this.
Dawson’s successful Swat the Fly campaign in Cleveland became a model followed by other cities throughout the nation. Despite cases in Florida remaining relatively low compared to those of the northeast in 1916, several cities across the state, like Pensacola, were fighting to eliminate this common household pest. That same year, the Pensacola Journal published five installments (over five days) authored by Dawson on how to best combat flies.
In the first installment, published April 22, 1916, Dawson explains the fly problem and provides information about the life cycle of the fly. The second installment geared toward mothers offered tips on how to keep babies safe from these disease carriers. The third post in the series explained that stables were common breeding grounds for files, and Dawson offered tips for keeping these areas clean. Additionally, in her fourth and fifth installments, Dawson explained the importance of setting traps in the home. She offered tips and encouragement to work together as a community to keep businesses clean.
We encourage further exploration of the historical newspapers in Chronicling America. Please share any findings or additional information in the comments below.
Dawson, Jean. “Fighting the Fly in the Interest of Public Health.” Scientific American, 111(11), pp. 209-2011, September 1914. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26013773
McClary, Andrew. “Swat the Fly: Popular Magazines and the Anti-Fly Campaign.” Preventive Medicine, 11, pp.373-378, May 1982. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0091743582900615
Cirillo, Vincent. “I am the baby killer: house flies and spread of polio.” American Entomologist, 62(2) pp83-86, June 2016. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303956238_I_Am_the_Baby_Killer_House_Flies_and_the_Spread_of_Polio
“What is Polio?”, Center for Disease Control, October 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/polio/what-is-polio/index.htm
Serfling, Robert E. & Sherman, Ida L. “Poliomyelitis Distribution in the United States.” Public Health Reports (1876-1970), 68(5), May 1953. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4588451