While Ashley County is not now known as a bastion of medical research, at one time it was the scene of some pioneering medical research—research into the relationship between mosquitos and the control of malaria.
In 1916, the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board provided the funding for a model research project in Ashley and Chicot Counties. To demonstrate that malaria could be controlled and prevented, the United States Health Service, using funding from the International Health Board, established anti- malarial projects at Crossett and at four plantations near Lake Village. While conditions were not as bad in Crossett as in some other areas, at one of the plantations in Chicot County, the landowner estimated that malaria reduced the efficiency of his tenants by as much as fifty percent.
The anti-malaria projects, described by state health officer Dr. C. W. Garrison as "the most exhaustive and systematic every prosecuted," consisted of drainage work to eliminate places where mosquitos bred, screening in some houses while leaving others open as controls, and in giving quinine to some of the residents.
In Crossett, the project included about 9,000 feet of ditching and all pools and stagnant water within a half-mile of the city, with the exception of one mill pond, were drained to remove breeding sites. In addition, the railroads cooperated in draining pits along their tracks. The project began in April, and by July, Garrison had visited Crossett and reported that the project was successful. As a result of the efforts undertaken there, he said, "Crossett is virtually free of mosquitos. At the corresponding date last year they were almost intolerable. There have been no cases of malaria, with the exception of recurrences from infections suffered last year."
In Crossett, the first year of the two-year demonstration was a resounding success. The mayor and board of aldermen, the Crossett Lumber Company and the health officers of Crossett paid tribute to that program in a joint resolution. The resolution said in part, "Whereas, this work has resulted in practically eliminating malaria from this community and in greatly improving the sanitary and general health conditions of the town; therefore, be it resolved . . .that this expression of the gratitude of the people of Crossett be tendered the United States Public Health Service, the International Health Board, Dr. Derivaux and Dr. Taylor for their efforts which have accomplished such splendid results and for their campaign of education, which has prepared the community to carry out further disease prevention measures."
With the successful effort in Crossett, the International Health Commission began to consider expanding their efforts to help control mosquitos in Hamburg. Dr. H. A. Taylor and local sanitary inspector A. E. Denton surveyed Hamburg in February, 1917, as a possible site for the expansion of the demonstration project.
With the expansion of the project to Hamburg in 1917, the city council approved an anti-mosquito ordinance which prohibited allowing artificial breeding places such as water barrels, horse troughs, wash tubs, etc. to be retained unless proper precautions were made to control mosquitos. After the approval of the ordinance in February, Dr. H. A. Taylor became the director of the malaria demonstration project in Hamburg and promised that a house to house check would be made to ensure that the anti- mosquito ordinance was being followed.
By July, 1917, the project had gained even more impetus with the county led by County Judge C. D. Olsin approving an appropriation of $2,400 to extend the work of cleaning up breeding sites and eradicating mosquitos from the county. To continue the mosquito control project, local officials planned to divide the county into three sanitary districts, each with a sanitary inspector.
A medical director for the whole county would provide supervision for the project. While concentrating on mosquitos, the project also aimed at providing sewage facilities to combat hookworm, typhoid and similar diseases. In addition, local officials also expected to obtain a grant of $1,000 from the State Health Board to assist in the effort.
By August, 1917, the editor of the Ashley County Eagle was convinced that the project was a success. He noted, "It is the opinion of those who are following the work that very gratifying results are being obtained, and that the entire summer will be distinguished by being the first season free from mosquitos of all varieties and a remarkable reduction in the number of cases of malaria receiving professional attention."
The mosquito project in Ashley County drew comments from outside the area as well. In July, 1917, the "Arkansas Gazette" of Little Rock noted the local project and said, "It may be that before long not only other counties in Arkansas, but counties in other states of the South, will be cited to Ashley county as a example of what can be done for public health by intelligent work."
After summarizing the project in Ashley County, the "Gazette" editors asked, "Will not other counties follow Ashley's enlightened lead and take measures by which human life may be safeguarded, great economic losses prevented and the public comfort and well-being vastly furthered?"
As to the end result of the project, there is no doubt that it reduced the malaria rates. Writing in the "Chicago Daily Tribune," Dr. W. A. Evans reported that the project in Crossett cost $1.23 per capita in 1916 and sixty-three cents per capita in 1917. He found that in 1915 the number of physicians' visits for malaria in Crossett was 2,500. For 1916 that dropped to 743 and in 1917 there were only 200 visits to physicians in Crossett for the treatment of malaria. Evans concluded, "The people were unanimous in saying that there had been an almost complete freedom from annoyance by mosquitos. Add to this the saving to the men in dollars and in sickness, and no more need be said for malaria prevention."
In Hamburg, the director of the demonstration, Dr. Taylor, said in September, 1917, that "complaints have been received lately from different portions of town as to the prevalence of mosquitos, and in a majority of the cases, the source of propagation has been found to be artificial containers." He then reminded citizens of the city of the terms of the ordinance, threatening a house to house inspection with the penalties set by the ordinance to be inflicted upon those found in violation. Yet, even with the continuing problem of mosquito control, if the figures in Crossett are any indication, Hamburg must have also benefitted from the mosquito control demonstration.
While not a permanent solution to the problem of mosquito control, the research project in Ashley County did provide both medical and financial relief for its duration. And, at least partially as a result of the educational campaign undertaken as a part of the demonstration, local governments and local citizens obtained new information on how to control and prevent the spread of malaria by controlling mosquitos.
Writing a little over a decade after the project concluded, Dr. Garrison said of the project at Crossett: "The results were striking, 71 per cent reduction in the incidence of the disease occurred the first year. Other localities were controlled equally or better, during the following year." Not only was the project successful on a local level, but, Garrison said, "The Crossett experiment has become a classic and the methods evolved from that experiment have been used in principle throughout the malaria belt of the world."