She tried another tack. Everyone agreed that tuberculosis was airborne. So she plugged “5 microns” and “tuberculosis” into a search of the CDC’s archives. She scrolled and scrolled until she reached the earliest document on tuberculosis prevention that mentioned aerosol size. It cited an out-of-print book written by a Harvard engineer named William Firth Wells. Published in 1955, it was called Airborne Contagion and Air Hygiene. A lead!
In the Before Times, she would have acquired the book through interlibrary loan. With the pandemic shutting down universities, that was no longer an option. On the wilds of the open internet, Randall tracked down a first edition from a rare book seller for $500—a hefty expense for a side project with essentially no funding. But then one of the university’s librarians came through and located a digital copy in Michigan. Randall began to dig in.
In the words of Wells’ manuscript, she found a man at the end of his career, rushing to contextualize more than 23 years of research. She started reading his early work, including one of the studies Jimenez had mentioned. In 1934, Wells and his wife, Mildred Weeks Wells, a physician, analyzed air samples and plotted a curve showing how the opposing forces of gravity and evaporation acted on respiratory particles. The couple’s calculations made it possible to predict the time it would take a particle of a given size to travel from someone’s mouth to the ground. According to them, particles bigger than 100 microns sank within seconds. Smaller particles stayed in the air. Randall paused at the curve they’d drawn. To her, it seemed to foreshadow the idea of a droplet-aerosol dichotomy, but one that should have pivoted around 100 microns, not 5.
The book was long, more than 400 pages, and Randall was still on the hook for her dissertation. She was also helping her restless 6-year-old daughter navigate remote kindergarten, now that Covid had closed her school. So it was often not until late at night, after everyone had gone to bed, that she could return to it, taking detailed notes about each day’s progress.
One night she read about experiments Wells did in the 1940s in which he installed air-disinfecting ultraviolet lights inside schools. In the classrooms with UV lamps installed, fewer kids came down with the measles. He concluded that the measles virus must have been in the air. Randall was struck by this. She knew that measles didn’t get recognized as an airborne disease until decades later. What had happened?
Part of medical rhetoric is understanding why certain ideas take hold and others don’t. So as spring turned to summer, Randall started to investigate how Wells’ contemporaries perceived him. That’s how she found the writings of Alexander Langmuir, the influential chief epidemiologist of the newly established CDC. Like his peers, Langmuir had been brought up in the Gospel of Personal Cleanliness, an obsession that made handwashing the bedrock of US public health policy. He seemed to view Wells’ ideas about airborne transmission as retrograde, seeing in them a slide back toward an ancient, irrational terror of bad air—the “miasma theory” that had prevailed for centuries. Langmuir dismissed them as little more than “interesting theoretical points.”
But at the same time, Langmuir was growing increasingly preoccupied by the threat of biological warfare. He worried about enemies carpeting US cities in airborne pathogens. In March 1951, just months after the start of the Korean War, Langmuir published a report in which he simultaneously disparaged Wells’ belief in airborne infection and credited his work as being foundational to understanding the physics of airborne infection.
How curious, Randall thought. She kept reading.
In the report, Langmuir cited a few studies from the 1940s looking at the health hazards of working in mines and factories, which showed the mucus of the nose and throat to be exceptionally good at filtering out particles bigger than 5 microns. The smaller ones, however, could slip deep into the lungs and cause irreversible damage. If someone wanted to turn a rare and nasty pathogen into a potent agent of mass infection, Langmuir wrote, the thing to do would be to formulate it into a liquid that could be aerosolized into particles smaller than 5 microns, small enough to bypass the body’s main defenses. Curious indeed. Randall made a note.
This content was originally published here.