The Van Trump Report

How a Vaccine Helped Saved America’s Early Cattle Industry

As the U.S. rangeland cattle industry was coming into its own around the mid-1800s, the herds of the American West faced untold number of threats as they were herded across the open plains. One of the biggest was a disease that many livestock farmers are likely familiar with to this day – blackleg. Between 1870 and the early 1990s, ranchers across Western states and Canada were regularly losing as much as a quarter of their young cattle to the disease.

In 1904, the Kansas Agriculture Experimental Station reported that losses from blackleg in the southern and western states were greater than all other diseases combined. They also noted that, “Good, fat, beef calves are very susceptible, while poor, thin calves and calves of dairy breeds are more resistant.” The animals affected by blackleg were usually healthy and well-fed, between 6 months and 2 years of age, and generally struck during the seasons of the year when the cattle were making their biggest gains. What’s more, the disease was almost always fatal with no known way to prevent it.

Also known as “black quarter”, “quarter ill”, and “symptomatic anthrax,” the disease then and now is characterized by a sudden appearance of lameness, followed by a rapid development of muscular and subcutaneous swellings containing gas. Death usually occurs within 12 to 48 hours of the first visible symptoms. Prior to 1782, scientists considered blackleg a specific form of anthrax, with both diseases being treated in various ways that were mostly ineffective. By 1790, scientists had worked out that blackleg was a separate disease, but it wasn’t until around 1875 that they pinpointed the exact cause.

The culprit is a spore-forming bacterium called “Clostidium chavoei.” Its spores are ubiquitous in the soil and manure, and after ingestion they are capable of crossing the intestinal mucosa, entering the bloodstream, and being carried to skeletal muscles. This led to numerous methods of vaccination to be developed, though most were crude compared to modern methods, with varying degrees of success. Many of them utilized a method that involved cultures of the live bacterium. Some of the immunizations themselves had toxic results.

Around 1910, veterinarians O.M. Franklin and T.P. Haslam began conducting extensive experiments with a new powdered vaccine at the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station in Manhattan. Their work led to the development of the first highly effective anti-blackleg “serum” known as Aggressin that immediately stopped losses in afflicted herds. The Kansas State Board of Agriculture in 1916 reported that of the 25,000 head of cattle that received the experimental treatment, none contracted blackleg.

In 1916, Franklin and his colleagues relocated to Wichita, Kansas, where they built a small plant to manufacture the drug. They were soon joined by Charles E. Collins of Colorado and some other cattlemen and renamed the company the Blackleg Serum Company of Kansas. Shortly thereafter, the company moved to Amarillo, Texas, to build an even larger plant. At the same time, Franklin had continued his research and was now working toward cheaper production methods.

The first vaccine required the use of live calves, making it very expensive to manufacture. Franklin developed a novel culture method growing the blackleg bacteria in a liver broth and killed the live bacteria with formalin. They began testing the first vaccine developed using the method in 1916 on 50,000 calves in herds in the Texas Panhandle and Colorado. After four years of testing, the vaccine had proved itself, was patented, and sales began. Between 1917 and 1972 the company produced 250 million doses of blackleg protection.      

O.M. Franklin was a true pioneer in his use of formalin in the production of his blackleg vaccine, as well as other vaccines that he developed. At first the company produced only Aggressin and blackleg bacterin, but in 1925 it began to sell livestock supplies and by 1930 had added pharmaceutical supplies and other vaccines. The company renamed itself the Franklin Serum Company in 1937 and by the end of the 1960s was producing twenty different vaccines. With annual sales topping $5 million, it became the largest cattle vaccine and supply company in the world by the middle of the century. The company’s history fades from around 1963 when it was sold to American Home Products (now Wyeth).

There isn’t a lot in the history books about Franklin, though he is celebrated by some local organizations – such as the Texas State Historical Association and the National Cowboy Museum – for his massive contribution to the Western cattle industry. In fact, I can’t even find any pictures of Franklin. However, vintage O.M. Franklin Serum Company supplies are pretty hot collectors items, particularly syringes and cow tags! (Sources: TSHA, Kansas State Extension, Wiki)

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