It’s quite unusual to find a previously undiscovered disease that makes its first known appearance to medical experts in a metropolis, let alone in New York City. It’s even more unusual that unraveling the cause of this hitherto unknown malady, which had eluded scientists, was solved primarily through the perseverance of a self-taught entomological authority who had never attended college. Such is the incredible story of PMP Hall of Fame, Class of 2010, posthumous inductee Charles Pomerantz.
Charles Pomerantz was a pest management expert and self-trained entomologist who played a pivotal role in identifying the etiology of a 1946 outbreak in New York City of what was later named rickettsialpox.
Born in Poland, Pomerantz immigrated to the United States as a child. He grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and first worked for a manufacturer of ladies coats. Later, he entered the pest management business with the goal of performing a greater service to the community — and that’s exactly what he did.
Pomerantz was credited with identifying this as a zoonotic disease spread through mice and the mites that infested rodents. After culturing and isolating the organism in laboratory mice, the pathogen named Rickettsia akari was identified as the ultimate cause of the disease now called rickettsialpox. The Department of Health announced a program to work with building owners to exterminate the mice that were the vector for the disease. More than 500 cases of the disease were diagnosed in New York City from 1947 to 1951.
Later that year, Dr. Edward W. Baker of the United States Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine honored Pomerantz with the naming of a mite discovered in peach orchards in the Southern United States, calling it Pomerantzia charlesi. A species of flea discovered in the Philippines was named for him in 1951 — Stivalius pomerantzi. Over the course of his career, Pomerantz also was honored by having his name given to a crane fly and a group of prostigmatic mites.
Public Health Hero
Pomerantz’s scientific fame came about as a result of a mysterious near-epidemic which began in February 1946 in Queens when an 11-year-old boy living in the Regency Park housing development was hospitalized with a blisteringly high fever, achy muscles, a rash and lesions. Various tests concluded the boy did not have any known disease displayed by the symptoms.
The boy recovered, but within a few weeks dozens of similar cases with similar symptoms were reported and, curiously, all the victims lived in the Regency Park apartments. Despite many inspections and blood tests, nearly 100 more cases of the Mystery Disease (as it was dubbed in the New York press) were reported and still the New York City Department of Health could not ascertain the exact cause. Authorities still weren’t any closer to a solution of this baffling disease that went away by itself after a few weeks, ostensibly caused no permanent damage and afflicted only residents of Regency Park.
Five months after the initial case of unremitting high fever and strange rashes, people were still falling ill to this malady that did not affect anybody in the neighboring Kew Gardens area, nor in any other section of Queens, nor any other part of New York City — not even in other parts of the United States.
“I was intensely fascinated,” Pomerantz told New Yorker magazine. “Here was a disease resembling Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. A tick transmits Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. And the tick is my specialty. I said to myself, ‘If even the doctors are baffled, then Charles Pomerantz has a moral obligation to look into it.’”
Pomerantz then repeatedly walked the streets of the neighboring area and asked dog owners if their dogs had ever experienced ticks. He even combed dogs for tick specimens.
“I found it fantastic to believe that enough ticks — it would take hundreds, thousands — to cause so many people to become ill, could suddenly invade an area without anybody finding a single one, not even kennelsmen,” Pomerantz said. “Ticks are not so small that they’re invisible, and when they are gorged with the blood of the necessary host, they’re as big as a kidney bean.”
Pomerantz remained perplexed, but the answer came to him like a thunderbolt: Perhaps rats or mice are the
“middle men.” Rats and mice were not known to transmit any rash-inducing disease, so the next logical assumption was that the rodents must be hosts to a disease-bearing parasite that can bite and infect man as an accidental host.
Ticks Out, Mites In!
Pomerantz contacted Dr. Shankman, the doctor who treated the first group of the Mystery Disease cases. Despite the conventional wisdom of that time that mites could only transmit two serious feverish diseases (Japanese River Fever and Endemic Typhus), Pomerantz convinced the doctor to consider his deduction and to assist in enabling Pomerantz access to the Regency Park basement and incinerator areas.
On July 28, 1946, Pomerantz entered the basement areas and, after hours of intensive searching, collected 45 mite samples. He was ecstatic.
“I, a humble pest control operator, had found something to relieve the uncertainty of men of scientific learning,” Pomerantz said at the time. “I can’t describe my sensation of glory.”
The next morning, Pomerantz traveled to Washington by train and showed his mite specimens to Dr. Baker, who confirmed that the specimens contained a rather rare species of mites, Allodermanyssus sanguineus.
Pomerantz was elated. He returned to the Regency Park apartments and spent seven weeks in the basement and incinerator areas, where, by this time, government scientists had set up a field laboratory to process and expedite the shipment of Pomerantz’s newest mite catches. Dr. Robert Huebner of the U.S. Public Health Service worked closely with Pomerantz.
When some Regency Park tenants reported, “the walls were moving,” Pomerantz peeled back loose wallpaper to discover the walls surging with mites.
Pomerantz was credited with discovering the mystery malady as a zoonotic disease spread by rickettsial pathogen transmitted by mites and borne by mice. The disease, now called rickettsialpox, was controlled by eliminating the mice — but not until 1952 after nearly 500 New Yorkers had contracted the disease.
President Harry Truman, New York Governor Thomas Dewey and New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer honored Pomerantz at a huge banquet. In addition to countless newspaper feature stories, his contributions to public health were recognized in books (“Eleven Blue Men and Other Narratives of Medical Detection” and “The Ratcatcher’s Child”) and several interviews with him were published in the New Yorker magazine.
Pomerantz was invited to speak at the Harvard School of Public Health, the Tufts School of Medicine and the Israel Ministry of Health, as well as at countless other universities and at symposia throughout the globe.
If you knew Pomerantz, however, you couldn’t help but be aware that the tributes he cherished most were the naming of several species of mites, fleas, chiggers and other anthropods in his honor and utilizing the nomenclature Pomerantzia, Pomerantzia charlesi or other Latinized versions that would immortalize his name.