Rat Urine And Thanksgiving

Rat urine. As we feast on succulent turkey, moist stuffing, and glistening cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving, the furthest thing from our minds is probably rat urine.

Yet it’s quite possible that America as we know it would not exist without rat urine and leptospirosis, the disease it spreads. The disease conveniently cleared coastal New England of Native Americans just prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival and later killed the helpful Squanto. It still lurks among us, underdiagnosed, an emerging menace.

In the winter of 1620, the Mayflower happened to dock at an abandoned village. It had been known in the local Wampanoag language as Patuxet. Pilgrims rejoiced; the land “hath been planted with corn three or four years ago, and there is a very sweet brook runs under the hillside.” In fact, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain had observed what would become Plymouth harbor 15 years earlier and drew a map of native homes surrounded by fields of corn.

Where had all the people gone? As the Pilgrims thanked God for their luck, they were unaware that the previous tenants had died of a gruesome infectious disease.

In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims finally met their surviving neighbors. If the colonists thought God was good for guiding them to pretilled land and a sweet brook, they were even more thankful when the first Native American strolled into their midst, smiling and saying in English, “Welcome!” According to Pilgrim-era writings, he told them straight away that the previous villagers “died of an extraordinary plague.” A few days later, Tisquantum arrived. Called Squanto by Pilgrims, he was born in Patuxet, abducted by Englishman Thomas Hunt in 1614, and missed out on the epidemic that killed his entire village. During his years in captivity, he’d learned English, and he was now attached to a nearby branch of the Wampanoag.

The Pilgrim leader William Bradford was already aware of the death toll from “Indean fever.” His scouts had ventured inland and noted “sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould.” It’s estimated as many as nine out of 10 coastal Indians were killed in the epidemic between 1616 and 1619.

What killed so many people so quickly? The symptoms were a yellowing of the skin, pain and cramping, and profuse bleeding, especially from the nose. A recent analysis concludes the culprit was a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria. Spread by rat urine.

Leptospirosis is what’s known as a zoonotic disease. The bacterium lives in animal hosts and is transmitted between animals and to people via urine in fresh water. Its favorite host is the black rat, Rattus rattus (the rat so nice they named it twice), a nonnative species that was inadvertently transported to North America on explorers’ ships…



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