Let me warn you that this story is not for the squeamish. Way back in 1908 the millionaire John D Rockefeller wanted to make still more money. But most of his markets were saturated, so he began looking at the southern United States as an untapped marketplace. But there was a problem…the South’s economy was lousy. The people were illiterate, dirt poor, and were perceived as lazy. Farms weren’t fully operational, and the economic engine seemed to be turned off.
Rockefeller wanted to know why, so he formed a commission of economists and sociologists to go down and figure out why southerners weren’t faring well. They came back that southerners on average appeared to be sick. They were pale, physically slow (not mentally) and lethargic, classic signs of being anemic. So Rockefeller sent another commission of doctors to find the basis of the anemia. They not only verified that there was widespread anemia among southerners, but that the anemia was related to soil types: on sandy- loamy soils (good farm land), people were anemic; on clay soils (not so good farm land) there was little anemia. So they determined that the anemia was linked to the soil.
They ran tests and found a very high incidence of hookworm, an intestinal parasite. They then had to figure out how southerners were getting hookworm, and so they looked at their feces, which is how hookworm gets spread. They asked the southerners “where do you go?” The answer usually was “over there by that tree”. Another important factor was many southerners (especially children) did not wear shoes regularly, and concluded that the people were getting hookworm through their feet. But no one intentionally steps in their own poop, which meant that the hookworms must crawl. So they set out to find out how far. They built a sandbox and put some hookworm infested stools in the middle. Every day they sampled the soil to see if hookworm larvae were moving out away from the stool, seeking victims. By day 4 they were able to move out four feet away from the stool, but on day 5 they stayed at four feet, apparently exhausted. And by Day 7 they were dead. So the answer to stopping hookworm was to devise a way to keep human feces (and hookworm) six feet away from people, as six feet is two feet further than hookworm can travel. So they pondered and their answer was….the outhouse.
Now outhouses had been around since at least the 1500s in Europe, but to erect an outhouse with a six foot deep pit under it was new. I interviewed some local seniors that grew up with outhouses and got interesting answers (and funny looks). Some did not use an outhouse until the 1940s or so. Most said their outhouses did not have a pit dug under them. When I asked about the poop building up under the outhouse, one smiled and said “that’s why we kept a few mongrel dogs around.” Uh….moving on…nobody noticed people being sick or anemic around here, so it must have been a more southern problem
In 1910 Rockefeller launched a campaign against hookworm. Workers built outhouses at schools, encouraged children to wear shoes, went door to door discussing hygiene and hosted picnics to talk about testing and treatment. Within 5 years hookworm was controlled and the south rose again. People got stronger, kids stayed in school longer, productivity increased, and the economy began to prosper. Rockefeller eventually got his new market. Outhouses have always been part of the mountain culture and often a humorous subject. But I now look upon them with much greater respect. Information for this article was partially from the radio program Radio Lab.