Why Is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta?

You will also learn why operators of hydro-electric dams vary the elevation of reservoirs during certain times of the years.

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

In 1970, prior to leaving for a fellowship in Mexico, I was advised by the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta that if I intended to wander through the jungles of Campeche, Tabasco, Guatemala and British Honduras, it was prudent that I get vaccinated for cholera, yellow fever, hepatitis and malaria. The only place within hundreds of miles, where those vaccines were available, was a modern five story building near the Emory University Campus, known as the National Communicable Disease Center (CDC). Their own nurses gave me the shots. There was no charge. My oh my has that little known federal agency grown.

Many people around the world wonder why the biological research complex, which has led the fights to eradicate many contagious diseases such as polio, measles, chicken pox, smallpox, malaria, Yellow Fever, STDs, Ebola Fever, AIDS and now Covid . . . is in Atlanta, GA, rather than near Washington, DC or New York City. The short answer is . . . malaria, a railroad junction and Coca Cola.

Emory University

In 1914, Asa Griggs Candler, the founder of The Coca-Cola Company and brother to Methodist bishop and Emory President Warren Candler, persuaded the Methodist Episcopal Church, South to build a new university in DeKalb County, Georgia near the affluent planned suburb of Druid Hills. At the same time oil millionaires in Houston were funding a planned Southern Methodist University.

Candler endowed the school with one million dollars and a gift of 75 acres (304,000 m²) of land in the newly emerging Druid Hills community, located northeast of downtown Atlanta in DeKalb County. The campus is less than a mile from the current Atlanta city limits.

Heavily endowed by “Coca-Cola” millionaires, Emory University by 1919 had created a school of law, medicine, business, and graduate studies. In time, schools of nursing and dentistry would join the university, although the dental school has since been closed and replaced with a school of public health. Doctoral studies at Emory University were established in 1946, in conjunction with the anticipated arrival of a US Public Service facility next door.  This fact becomes relevant as our story continues.

The course of Emory’s history changed dramatically when, in November 1979, Coca Cola heirs, Robert and George Woodruff, presented the institution with a gift of $105 million in Coca-Cola stock. At the time this was the largest single gift to any institution of higher education in American history, and it made a profound impact on Emory’s direction in the next two decades, boosting the university to the top ranks of American research universities. In 2006, the Robert Woodruff Foundation donated $261.5 million  to Emory University to overhaul the Emory University Hospital Outpatient Clinic, renovate the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Administration Building, and facilitate Emory’s Strategic Plan.  Emory was recreating itself as the academic partner of the Centers for Disease Control.

Muscle Shoals Dam

Our story starts in 1916 near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a small town located on the southern bank of the Tennessee River. As an emergency war measure, President Woodrow Wilson authorized the building of a hydroelectric dam at Muscle Shoals to provide power for a munitions plant to support troops being shipped to Europe.   

Vast expanses of swamps and seasonal wetlands paralleled the Tennessee River near Muscle Shoals. Officials in Washington, DC apparently were not aware that these areas of stagnant water harbored swarms of anopheles mosquitoes, carrying the protozoa, which causes malaria.  Construction progress on the dam decelerated as more and more workers became ill with malaria. The occurrence of the disease also increased among residents of the Muscle Shoals area.   As a result, the war ended before the dam was completed.

Construction on the project languished through the 1920s while Congress debated what to do with the property. Some senators wanted to sell the dam to a private company while others thought the government should retain public control of the property.

Senator George Norris of Nebraska proposed the Muscle Shoals Bill which would allow government use of the dam to produce and sell electricity. President Herbert Hoover vetoed the bill in 1931, insisting that it was the job of private enterprise and not government.

An introduction to malaria

The parasite Plasmodium, which is the cause of malaria was first discovered in 1880. Malaria is transmitted when the parasite Plasmodium.  The parasite is injected into the human blood stream by the bite of an infected mosquito. Shortly thereafter the parasite enters a red blood cell and begins to grow and multiply until from 16 to 24 new parasites are formed. The red cell then bursts, freeing the parasites which soon enter other red cells to undergo similar development.

Target areas of the TVA, US Army and CDC malaria eradication programs

The TVA Malaria Eradication Program

The America public’s attitude toward federal government operation of power-generating facilities changed radically after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president.  Roosevelt modeled portions of his Tennessee Valley Authority on the Norris-Muscle Shoals Bill, but expanded the role of the TVA to include economic development and public health care. 

The Roosevelt Administration knew there was a chronic problem with malaria in Tennessee Valley downstream from Knoxville, TN, but were astonished by the results of blood tests by the initial team of public health nurses, who went out into rural areas to provide free services to the impoverished.  At least a third of the people living in the Tennessee River Valley in Tennessee and Alabama carried plasmodia in their blood!  In some communities, near swamps, the percentage approached 100%.

Archival research revealed that the parasite had existed in the anopheles mosquitoes of eastern Tennessee in the 1700s, when it was occupied by the Cherokee.  Cherokee raiders had apparently carried the parasite back from raids on the Gulf Coast and Florida.  The parasite spread to a large percentage of the Cherokee, while they were confined to stockades, prior the Trail of Tears.  This would explain the high death rate among the Cherokee as they traveled westward.  Those unfortunate persons, and the bands that preceded them in 1817, carried the plasmodia to Arkansas, which in 1932 had the highest death rate from malaria in the nation (10% of all deaths in the state).

Public health officers and engineers immediately hit on the most effective way to eliminate the disease-bearing mosquitoes. They raised and lowered the water levels of reservoirs at key times of the year to either drown mosquito larva or expose them to dry, hot conditions.   Public health teams then drained swamps when possible and thoroughly sprinkled DDT at homes and farmsteads, where malaria was found to be endemic. By the end of World War II,  malaria had been completely eliminated from the Tennessee Valley.

The US Army Malaria Eradication Program

By the 1930s, malaria had become concentrated in 13 southeastern states. In 1940 the United States Department of War asked the Public Health Service (PHS) to help organize public health activities near military facilities, most of which were in the South. In the spring of 1941, the PHS assigned its chief malariologist, Louis L. Williams, Jr., as liaison officer to the Fourth Service Command’s headquarters in Atlanta.

Early in 1942 the PHS obtained funds for an independent malarial control program for military installations and war industries in 15 southeastern states and the Caribbean. This program was called Malaria Control in War Areas (MCWA). It was led by Dr. Williams in Atlanta. The program focused primarily on larvicide. They started with Paris green. However, diesel oil soon became the primary larvicide. That was replaced by DDT starting in 1944.

Satellite image of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Communicable Disease Center

Dr. Joseph Mountin, head of the State Relations Division of the Public Health Service, which included MCWA, obtained the support of the National Institutes of Health for the creation of a Communicable Disease Center (CDC), utilizing the MCWA as its core staff.  Because of the successful efforts of the TVA and US Army in combating vector-borne diseases, the greatest concentration of experts in this area of public health were in Atlanta and the Chattanooga headquarters of the TVA.

The center was also located in Atlanta (rather than Washington, DC or other southern cities) because the South was the area of the country with the most malaria transmission. Atlanta was and still is the transportation hub of the Southeast. Back in 1946, the main concern was railroad transportation. Southern Railways had an overnight express train, connecting Atlanta and Washington, DC called the “Dixie Flyer,” which then continued on to New Orleans. Today, staff members of the CDC can fly anywhere in the world from Atlanta’s airport . . . which is the busiest airport in the world.

On July 1, 1946, the Communicable Disease Center was created on one floor of an office building on Peachtree Street in Downtown Atlanta.  It was a new component of the U.S. Public Health Service. The CDC was the direct successor of the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, an agency established in 1942 to limit the impact of malaria and other vector-borne diseases (such as murine typhus) in the southeastern US during World War II.

In 1946, realizing the importance of having a major government research lab next to Emory,  “Coca-Cola” Candler family purchased 15 acre of land for a CDC facility then gave it to Emory University.  In 1947, CDC made a token payment of $10 to Emory University for the 15 acres of land on Clifton Road in Atlanta that now serves as CDC headquarters. The new institution expanded its focus to include all communicable diseases and to provide practical help to state health departments and other nations, when requested.

The Communicable Disease Center became the National Communicable Disease Center in 1967, the Center for Disease Control in 1970, the Centers (plural) for Disease Control in 1980 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1992. Due to several “disaster movies” and repeated international news coverage, the CDC has become internationally famous.  It was the planned target of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.  Knives were planted in a Delta passenger jet in Houston, scheduled to fly to Atlanta, but the terrorists were unable to board the plane.

The CDC has again become internationally known for its participation in the fight against the Covid Pandemic and the efforts of the Trump Administration to censor public reports, produced by the CDC.  However, its staff continues to research dozens of other pathological microbes, which could potentially become the next Covid 19.  Of particular concern to the researchers are the increasing number of bacteria strains, which are either resistant or immune to antibiotics.


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