When John Rockefeller announced that he intended to eliminate hookworm disease in the American South, it was an unheard of notion. Indeed, some of the intended beneficiaries were embarrassed and annoyed to have a spotlight shone on this aspect of their region. Yet in warm-weather sections of the U.S., endemic hookworm among the poor was a real problem. The parasite causes extreme anemia, fatigue, lowered cognitive function, and gastrointestinal distress by leaching vital nutrients and minerals from the host’s body. The resulting lethargy creates economic as well as personal health problems.
Along came Rockefeller with $1 million (about $25 million in current dollars) and a savvy plan. In 1909, he created the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission to lead a public-health campaign. It worked to win the trust and support of local officials. It offered the public information on how to treat and avoid the disease. It sent field agents into infested states to demonstrate preventative hygiene. Because hookworm enters the bloodstream through the soles of the feet, wearing shoes and using sanitary latrines goes far toward preventing infection.
After a five-year campaign, hookworm disease was nearly eliminated in the South. This success led Rockefeller to create an International Health Commission in 1914 to launch similar campaigns in Mexico and Ceylon. Later Rockefeller’s anti-hookworm effort served as the model for other campaigns against diseases like malaria, typhus, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis.