Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Photo courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Robert Cooley October 12, 2012 by Sepp Jannotta • Published 10/12/12

The namesake for the newly renovated Cooley Laboratory helped lead the fight against Rocky Mountain spotted fever
For pioneering entomology professor Robert A. Cooley, the fight against disease became personal.

During his 1899-1931 tenure as a head of Montana State College's Department of Entomology and Zoology, while focused on battling Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other scourges, Cooley lost his 17-year-old son Robert Jr. to Spanish influenza. He also mourned the deaths of two colleagues and former MSC students--William Gittinger and Roy Kerlee--who died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The spotted fever investigation dovetailed into Cooley's groundbreaking research on Montana insects, work he did both as an early faculty member at the college and as Montana's first state entomologist.

"When he came here nothing was known about Montana insects," said Michael Ivie, MSU associate professor of entomology and curator of the Montana Entomology Collection. "Montana really was one of the ends of the earth."

Grasshoppers and ticks

Cooley was a product of the United States' newly minted land-grant university system. A Massachusetts Agricultural College-trained entomologist, Cooley signed on as one of the Montana land-grant college's earliest faculty members, and he arrived in Montana during a widespread and catastrophic grasshopper infestation.

What was really on (Cooley's) mind was to convince the voting public of Montana that science was important for its own sake.
-- Pierce Mullen
Cooley's work to help Montana farmers combat the dreaded Rocky Mountain locust was a high-profile example of the university's mission--to propagate science and technology for popular benefit--in action, Ivie said.

"He was the early embodiment of the land-grant mission," Ivie said. "He worked on both applied and primary science, taught in the classroom, and spent a lot of time addressing things like grasshoppers out in the field."

In 1906, a young University of Chicago pathologist named Howard Ricketts came west looking to unravel the deadly mystery of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which seemed to be at its most lethal along the west side of the Bitterroot Valley. Each spring and summer, people in the agriculture-rich valley fell ill with what was commonly called black measles, because victims displayed high fever and a prominent rash. At that time, the disease was fatal in four of five cases.

Scientists around the world were just beginning to recognize insects as a fundamental link in the spread of disease--in 1897 Ronald Ross discovered that mosquitoes transmit malaria. Cooley was inspired by the progress Ricketts had made in connecting Rocky Mountain spotted fever with the ticks that were abundant in the canyons and foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains.

With Cooley eagerly leading the way, MSC officially joined what would eventually become a joint state-and-federal investigation of spotted fever. "At that point, he didn't know exactly what was killing people," Ivie said. "But he went out there anyway and worked to find the cause of the disease."

Contrary to local lore that blamed the disease on the drinking of snowmelt, the investigation showed the cause was a bacterial organism Ricketts discovered was transferred to humans through the bite of the wood tick. Cooley was instrumental in documenting the life cycle of the wood tick. Under the auspices of the Montana State Board of Entomology, Cooley also implemented an eradication plan that relied on the controversial practice of dipping livestock into vats of an arsenic-based solution.

As Esther Gaskins Price describes in her book, Fighting Spotted Fever in the Rockies, the effort didn't come without casualties. Among those who lost their lives during the investigation were Gittinger and Kerlee, a couple of MSC alumni close to Cooley.

According to Price, Gittinger was a junior lab assistant who was infected when he rubbed an open wound after handling ticks in 1922. A graduate of Cooley's entomology program with hopes of going to graduate school in medicine, Gittinger died less than a week later, days shy of his 23rd birthday.

Kerlee, another MSC graduate, died in 1928 during production of a vaccine, presumably after being bitten by a tick in the Hamilton Lab.

Cooley's role in understanding Rocky Mountain spotted fever earned him national recognition as a scientist and helped lead to a vaccine that was studied and manufactured at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton.

This fall, Montana State University will re-open Cooley Laboratory following a $15-16 million renovation
At the present day facilities of Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton--where Cooley signed on as head entomologist in 1931 and worked until his retirement in 1946--Cooley's published research on the ticks of North America is still a go-to document, said Tom Schwan, a chief investigator at RML whose laboratory studies tick-borne illnesses.

"He remains a very important figure in our understanding of ticks," Schwan said of the man who is also credited with helping move the lab from the control of the Montana State Board of Health to the federal Public Health Service, now known as the National Institutes of Health. The transition helped make the lab one of the nation's premier research facilities, a distinction it still holds today.

Changing a paradigm

At MSU, where Cooley's insect collection is one of the oldest pieces of research on campus, Cooley Laboratory speaks to the stamp he left on the institution. Among other trails Cooley blazed: He took his research to South Africa at a time when MSC professors rarely ventured outside Montana, he discovered the Cooley spruce gall aphid, and built what, in its day, was one of the top medical entomology programs in the world.

MSU historian Pierce Mullen said Cooley was a near perfect fit for the young college.

"As a scientist, he thought it was a fine thing to be solving problems for farmers with advice from the latest science," said Mullen, professor emeritus of history. "But what was really on his mind was to convince the voting public of Montana that science was important for its own sake."

Ivie agreed.

"He's the one who brought credibility to the research that we do here and it literally kept the college going." ■