The Great Epizootic

The Great Epizootic

Equine influenza swept through the horse population in 1872, and the outbreak has some similarities to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Buildings lie in ruins after the great fire of Boston in 1872.

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Journal: The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Tom Moates for The American Quarter Horse Journal

One-fourth of the horses in the United States died.

That is no pitch for a sci-fi thriller ... it’s a fact. In a sudden attack of equine influenza, one out of every four horses in this nation reportedly laid down and perished. Likely 4 million horses were lost. It ravaged the country.

The Great Epizootic is what this unprecedented dilemma in American history came to be called. It occurred in 1872, when every aspect of American life was completely dependent upon horses. This equine disease paralyzed our biggest cities, disrupted our economy, incapacitated military operations and had far-reaching implications.

Today, with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) disrupting our world in a similar calamitous fashion, this historic event takes on more interest.

Of the horses, mules and donkeys that survived the onset of the catastrophic plague, staggering numbers (not just stables full, but entire cities full) were left completely debilitated – heads dragging the ground, ears cast down, wobbling and barely able to stand in their stalls. Most required months to recuperate, and many never knew full strength again. This crippling illness swept across the United States like a prairie fire in a drought.

A Transportation Crisis

This equine pandemic struck at a time when horses accounted for every appreciable amount of overland travel except early railroads. All movement over a human pedestrian pace simply ceased in sweeping areas of the country.

Even trains were not immune to the brutal ravages, as reported in The New York Times October 29, 1872: “Coal cannot be hauled from the mines to run locomotives.”   

In New York City alone, more than 30,000 horses were affected. Philadelphia also reported 30,000 horses with the ailment. It entered the country from Canada and blanketed America, coast-to-coast, top-to-bottom. It even jumped to Cuba.

It struck a massive blow to the nation just recovering from the Civil War. The size and scale of its effect, until now, could only find modern equivalents in such disasters as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. One would, however, need to multiply their impact to get a true sense of the magnitude of this horse plague. If those devastating disasters continued for months, spreading interruption of travel, communication, emergency vehicles, flow of commerce and supplies from city to city, only then would we begin to get a sense of how huge the Great Epizootic was. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 gives us a much clearer analogy.

The epizootic contributed to the near total destruction of Boston's commercial district from a fire in 1872. No horses remained healthy enough in the city to pull fire engines. New York City sat paralyzed without any significant transportation; goods piled up high on the docks and in the streets, with perishables spoiling. Humans were employed in urban areas to pull trolley cars and carts. Cavalry units crossed country on foot, packing their gear on their own backs without mounts to carry them. The economic “panic of 1873” that spiraled the country into five years of economic turmoil resulted, in part, from the mammoth losses and disruption to the economy caused by the unprecedented equine plague.

Why Don’t We Know About This?

Many horse people have never heard of this epizootic. Little remains of it in any literature. It would be like our present coronavirus pandemic finding no place in the history books or collective conscious of the near future.

Bob White, who was at the time the curatorial assistant of the Cody Firearms Museum (part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming), uncovered evidence of the Great Epizootic quite by accident.

Bob was researching incidents in Arizona relating to the wars between the U.S. Cavalry and American Indians. Reading in the book, “On the Border with Crook,” by Cavalry Capt. John Gregory Bourke published in 1891, Bob came across an odd reference. On Page 208, he read: “At that time, the peculiar disease known as the epizootic made its appearance in the United States and reached Arizona, crippling the resources of the Department in horses and mules; we had to abandon our animals and take our rations and blankets upon our backs and do the best we could.”

“This was a major military campaign that was disrupted for the lack of horses,” White explains. “I looked at that and said, ‘What’s the epizootic?’” He dug around for more information, but there was little available on the event, mostly brief newspaper reports from the time. He could find no one who had ever heard of the epizootic. Oddly, the reports he found all alluded to a sweepingly huge event in America – one involving an immense number of horses.

Understanding What Happened

  1. An epizootic generally refers to an animal disease spreading at an unexpectedly high rate through a given population. It is analogous to an epidemic in humans.
  2. A pandemic, by contrast, involves disease spread over a country or the world.

Epizootics are discussed in veterinary and historical literature both before and after the one that plagued North America in 1872. The Great Epizootic won its title in the U.S. due to the extremely debilitating and often deadly affect it inflicted upon its equine victims, the unusual speed and width of its spread, and the complete disruption of human society it caused.

Dr. Thomas G. Murname, DVM, ACVPM, Brig. Gen. U.S. Army retired, and a member of the American Veterinary Medical History Society, is no stranger to epizootics. In fact, Dr. Murname himself had been the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command’s Veterinary Staff Officer from 1967-1972, when a potential epizootic of Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis was isolated in Texas. It was eradicated before further spreading, thanks to quick intervention and a great deal of resources, many provided by the Army and Air Force.

But Dr. Murname didn’t know full details about the epizootic a century before. He began investigating this strange episode of American equestrian history, and his inquiries ultimately uncovered the single significant document on the subject: Influenza in Horses, a 45-page report in a larger document entitled Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1872, written by James Law, a professor of veterinary sciences at Cornell University, and published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1874.

The report contains information meticulously recorded during and immediately after the Great Epizootic, including a medically reliable look at the symptoms of the illness.

Based on those descriptions, Dr. Murname concluded that the 1872 episode was consistent with the equine influenza known today.

What We Learned From the Great Epizootic

The Great Epizootic, even clear to some observers at the time, caused a shift in American attitudes toward the emerging veterinary sciences. Suddenly, people were more than willing to seek professional veterinary help with the terrible malady. This represented quite a shift in beliefs. As one New York Times article from the time stated, “The veterinary surgeons are now run after by excited horsemen as soon as a horse shows the least sign of drooping, and home doctoring, except in rare instances, is abandoned for the skilled treatment of professionals.”

In his 1963 book, “The American Veterinary Profession (Its Background and Development),” Dr. J. F. Smithcors, DVM, Ph.D., writes: “The failure of attempts to establish veterinary schools prior to 1870 must in large part be charged to the willingness of the public to accept something less than what these schools had to offer ... until the ravages of disease made it apparent that these self-appointed parishioners were not adequate, and certainly not representative of the veterinary profession.”

Thus, the Great Epizootic seems clearly the definitive point where American opinion recognized the need, the potential and the growing desire for serious scientific veterinary medical practitioners. The evolution of the modern age may have brought this about regardless, but the equine plague of 1872 is the decisive accelerating factor that prompted the establishment of such services.

The development of an equine influenza vaccine was a game changer, but researchers have also learned that other methods are effective in controlling the disease.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention noted that during a 2007 outbreak of equine influenza in Australia, the country “saw a decline in new cases likely related to adoption of movement restrictions and biosecurity protocols.” Rising vaccination rates are credited with further stopping the disease’s spread and allowing the resumption of equine activities.

Perhaps we can take a lesson from this saga and remain vigilant in our preparations to halt disease spread in horses and humans alike.