Success Story from Egypt: Fred Soper’s Malaria Control Campaign

Fred Soper was born in 1893 in Kansas in the USA. He was the third of eight children. His father was a pharmacist and his mother a teacher. Mr. Soper earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1914 and a Master’s in Embryology in 1916 from the University of Kansas. He received his M.D. in 1918 from Rush Medical College at the University of Chicago.

In 1920, Dr. Soper began to work for the Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF’s) International Health Board (IHB), which was then the world’s largest public health organization. He helped to conceive and carry out effective anti-malaria campaigns in Brazil from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.

In 1942, more than 20,000 people died of malaria in southern Egypt within a few months. Alarmed, the Egyptian medical authorities sought the assistance of Dr. Soper, who by then was an esteemed epidemiologist and public health administrator based in North Africa as part of the US Army Typhus Commission. In January 1943, along with other scientists, Dr. Soper established a research laboratory in Cairo that was meant to serve as a base for his anti-malaria work. Unfortunately, the British, who then occupied the area, did not agree with Dr. Soper’s plan to control malaria, due to its anticipated cost.

In October 1943, there was another malaria outbreak in Egypt, but one which was far more devastating. No one was sure how many died, but in some communities 100 percent of the inhabitants fell ill and 15 percent died. With so many sick or dying, agricultural output was severely impacted and some regions experienced failure of 50 percent of the wheat crop.

In 1944, the Government of Egypt appealed to the Rockefeller Foundation for technical advice and on the basis of an Anopheles gambiae mosquito survey undertaken by Dr. Soper, offered 4,600 public health employees to carry out his insect-control plan. By late 1945, the gambiae mosquito had been eradicated in Egypt. A huge banquet was held to celebrate. In 1946, Dr. Soper was promoted to Associate Director of the RF’s International Health Division (what was formerly the IHB) and made Regional Director of its Africa and Middle East division.

Egypt remained free of the dreaded mosquito until 1950 when another wave of gambiae arrived from areas south. In May 1951, Dr. Soper learned from Dr. Saadallah Madwar of Egypt that control measures had been undertaken immediately and not a single case of gambiae-induced malaria had been reported.

Dr. Soper served as the Director of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau (the executive agency of the Pan American Health Organization) from 1947 until 1959 and as the Regional Director for the Americas for the newly created World Health Organization from 1949 to 1959; he also served as a Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University’s School of Public Health from 1949 through 1966.

Dr. Soper was the author or co-author of more than 120 scientific papers and three books. He was the recipient of many honors including the: Lasker Award (1946), Theobald Smith Gold Medal (1949), Pan American Health Organization Gold Medal (1959), American Public Health Association Sedgwick Medal (1966), World Health Organization Leon Bernard Foundation Prize (1967), and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Walter Reed Medal (1972). He died in 1977, the year his memoir, Ventures in World Health was published. Since 1978, the American Society of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine has supported a lectureship in Dr. Soper’s name.

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why was Dr. Fred Soper (and the Rockefeller Foundation for which he worked) so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

Dr. Soper stands out as one of the most successful practitioners of preventive medicine and public health of the mid-twentieth century. He had OPTIMISM, integrity and VISION, a talent for organizing and administering projects, an extraordinary ability to select and inspire capable staff, and skill in selecting and improving effective tools for international development.

Dr. Soper DEMONSTRATED SENSITIVITY TO THE MILIEU IN WHICH HE WORKED and had a fearless tenacity in dealing with superiors and government officials if he believed they were standing in the way of what was best for local people.

He researched malaria, yellow fever, and other disease outbreaks carefully, EXPERIMENTED with A VARIETY OF APPROACHES, LEARNED FROM HIS MISTAKES and APPLIED SUCCESSFUL APPROACHES from one location as relevant elsewhere. Dr. Soper RECOMMENDED THE USE OF A VARIETY OF STRATEGIES to combat insect-borne diseases including draining ditches and swamps, using window screens, and spraying natural (pyrethrum-based) and chemical insecticides (like Paris green and the now controversial substance DDT). DDT was banned for agricultural use in the USA in 1972 due to concerns over potential negative environmental and human impacts. Agricultural use of DDT has been banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention since 2004. According to the World Health Organization, DDT is still used in controlled volumes in at least a dozen countries to reduce deaths from malaria and the disease visceral leishmaniasis.

By Heidi G. Frontani

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