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Four University of California Bioscientists:

Karl Friedrich Meyer (1884-1974)

Plague and Botulism


Science writer Paul de Kruif described Karl F. Meyer as "the most versatile microbe hunter since Pasteur." He was more than that: he was also a leading figure in public health and an institution builder. Meyer was on the faculty of the University of California for sixty-one years, including thirty years as Director of the George Williams Hooper Foundation for Medical Research (1924-1954), the University’s first biology research facility. He organized the modern department of bacteriology and became a world renowned figure in public health through his work at the forefront of major human and veterinary health crises. Meyer, or "KF" as he was familiarly known, was educated in his native Switzerland, and came to Berkeley in 1913 as Associate Professor of Bacteriology and Protozoology. Simultaneously with his Hooper appointment, he directed the predecessor of the University’s School of Public Health. His students, some of whom are still on the UC faculty, remember his inspired teaching and dramatic personality. Meyer retired from the University in 1954.

Meyer made significant contributions to the epidemiology of infectious diseases such as brucellosis, plague, and equine encephalitis. Practically oriented, he formed collaborations with industry which led to highly beneficial results for society and prefigured the emergence of the new industrial biotechnology. For example, his work on botulism, which was funded by national and state canning associations, set safety standards and saved the industry – and California agriculture – from lethal outbreaks and imminent disaster. 
Meyer in his laboratory at the Hooper Foundation (1925).

Hooper Foundation

The Hooper Foundation was established at the San Francisco campus of the University of California in 1913 with the intention that it become a leading public health institute. George Williams Hooper, a self-made millionaire in the lumber industry, wished to establish an institution from which all parts of society might benefit.

A latter-day "microbe hunter"
Science writer Paul de Kruif wrote a heroic account of Meyer's achievements for this 1950 edition of Reader's Digest. A long-standing friend of Meyer, de Kruif likened him to the prominent figures of his widely read book, The Microbe Hunters (1926).
Links between academia and industry so evident today are hardly new. This letter is evidence of Meyer's long-term association with the canning industry in his work on botulism.


Plague is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Pasteurella pestis and is transmitted to man by fleas that have bitten infected animals. Plague can be differentiated into human (bubonic) and wild animal (sylvatic) forms. Wild rodents with the plague, such as ground squirrels and mice, create reservoirs of disease that can exist for centuries. Sylvatic plague is usually encountered in rural areas and only sporadically appears in humans. 

Meyer made contributions to plague research in two distinct areas: characterization of plague epidemiology and the development of a plague vaccine. Through methodical fieldwork, he identified reservoirs of disease in populations of wild rodents and formulated a theory of sylvatic plague epidemiology. He described the specific ecological conditions that could support plague reservoirs – invaluable information for those charged with surveillance and control of the disease. 

During World War II, Meyer shifted his focus to the development of a plague vaccine. Working hand in hand with Cutter Laboratories in the East Bay, the team at the Hooper Foundation cultured the plague bacterium and worked to standardize the vaccine. Meyer served as consultant to the Secretary of War, the U. S. Public Health Service, and other national organizations. As Meyer summarized in his Bancroft Library oral history: "We were the plague organization in the United States." 

Western rodent populations
This map and photographs made in 1933 were submitted as part of the Rodent Plague Survey. Working with the California Department of Public Health, Meyer conducted exhaustive fieldwork in infected areas, hunting and dissecting thousands of wild rodents and fleas. An obsessive detective, he tracked down plague in 13 western states, laying the groundwork for a new theory of plague epidemiology.

In 1928, Meyer began to refer to the disease in California as 'sylvatic plague' and predicted that "plague is going to be an infection with which we have to learn to live." He proposed that large reservoirs of Pasteurella pestis reside in wild rodents. The Meyer theory was at odds with the current stance that plague was a 'rat' disease which could be eradicated with effective pest control measures. Meyer recalled one health official telling him, "Plague is plague, and that word 'sylvatic' only deters from the interest people have in supporting rat control." 
Confirming a theory
In this letter, Meyer seeks corroboration of his theory from pioneer ecologist Charles Elton.

Commercial applications

With the support of the U.S Surgeon General's Office, the pharmaceutical companies Squibb and Lederle were contracted to produce antiplague sera according to exact specifications outlined by Meyer. At a nexus of science, industry, and government, Meyer turned the Hooper Foundation into a wartime plague vaccine factory which supplied essential ingredients for commercial vaccine production. He commented in his oral history for the Bancroft Library: "We were working actually twenty-four hours a day. We had a night crew working, cultivating plague bacilli, washing up, etc." 

Saving California agriculture and canning industries from botulism

An outbreak of botulism in canned olives from California threatened an embargo against the multimillion dollar canning industry in 1919. The following year, Meyer was chosen to head a laboratory within the Hooper Foundation that was funded by the California and National Canners Association to study botulism and develop standard processing procedures. Demanding $30,000, a large sum for the day, to start the laboratory, Meyer had little fear of the prominent businessmen of the industry or lack of confidence in his ability to find a solution to the botulism problem. 

The toxins released by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum interfere at neuromuscular junctions, causing paralysis and eventual death. The anaerobic, spore forming species thrives in the airtight, nutritive environment of canned foods. The spores and toxins, however, can be destroyed through heating. No hygienic regulations had been firmly established until Dr. Meyer helped formulate California's Cannery Act of 1925. The act required that products susceptible to botulism be inspected at every step of the canning process. Meyer remained an advisor to the canning industry throughout his career. 

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