…Ida Rolf and the Two Paradigms, cont’d

Two Wars

Through the early years of Ida Rolf’s tenure at Rockefeller, the work and environment of the Institute was heavily influenced by two wars. The first was World War I. Although the war began in Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson was determined throughout his first term to keep the country out of the conflict. His campaign theme in his 1916 re-election campaign was “He Kept Us Out of War.” He did not finally request that Congress declare war until April 1917, after a series of German submarine attacks on American merchant ships. The war draft was instated in May 1917.

As soon as war was declared, virtually every public and private institution in the country was converted in one form or another to the war effort. This included most educational institutions. After America committed to the war effort, there was some fear at Rockefeller that scientists would be lost, either to enlistment or to the draft.

So Flexner arranged to have the entire Institute incorporated into the army. The Rockefeller Institute officially became Army Auxiliary Laboratory Number One. Scientists received officer rank and were saluted by sergeants, who were abundant in the hallways, holding rank over janitors and technicians (which at the time would have included Dr. Rolf). The work of the staff was changed. Most researchers either began instructing military doctors or shifting to war-related research. At least one biochemist studied poison gas. Another worked on bomb-making materials. Others trained army doctors in treating infectious disease. As a technician (and as a woman), Ida Rolf likely would not have been offered a commission. There is no record that she was offered one, and it is likely that she spent much of her time during her first years in classwork and doctoral work at Columbia.


The second war, and one in which Dr Rolf might have played a minor role, was waged at laboratories worldwide, and with a much deadlier enemy. In late January 1918, in Haskell County, Kansas, a local doctor began noting patients suffering from what seemed to be a particularly violent, fast-developing and deadly form of influenza. It is believed by epidemiologists that a local soldier home on leave later carried the flu back to his army base, where it gradually worked its way across the country, across the ocean on troop ships, and eventually to almost every corner of the earth. It was the likely beginning of what became the deadliest plague in human history, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, with a worldwide death toll estimated as high as 50-100 million lives lost.

It is difficult to conceive today of the level of hysteria and paralyzing fear that swept the country (and the rest of the world) as the virus spread slowly from one city, one army base, one state to another. It was a strain of flu never seen before, characterized in part by the speed and ferocity with which it killed. Countless cases were recorded worldwide in which people who showed no symptoms at all, suddenly were struck down and dead within hours. And unlike most influenzas, it struck the most viciously at the most vigorous members of a population – somehow, it attacked the immune systems of the healthiest people so suddenly that their own immune response killed them, and killed them with a breathtaking speed. Using the upper estimates of the death toll (which are conceded by many epidemiologists today to very probably be reasonable estimates), 5% of the world’s population was killed, and an unusually high percentage of that number were young adults, the healthiest members of the population. Most of the deaths took place worldwide during a horrific sixteen week span in late 1918.

The epidemic was made worse by the propaganda machine that was in full force to rally support for the war effort. The government didn’t want fear of influenza to distract the country from a total support for the war, and so accurate and truthful information about the danger was not communicated to the public until too late in city after city. The army ignored the advice (the pleadings, more accurately) of its own surgeon general and didn’t take adequate safeguards, and its bases were devastated by the virus.

In the hardest hit communities, public and private business simply shut down – no one wanted to go near anyone else. Entire households died, time and again, because no one would go near their home to help, afraid of the virus. The supply of doctors and nurses was hopelessly inadequate to make even a minimal impact in most areas.

By late 1918, when the deadly second wave of the epidemic was in full force and the magnitude of the crisis was tragically apparent, a massive worldwide research effort had already mobilized to isolate the influenza virus, to find effective treatments, and to develop a vaccine. The scientific community focused its attention (as much as possible with the war still in full sway) on the disease. The Rockefeller Institute was no different, and some of its best and most well-known scientists would tackle the problem and later spend most of their professional lives on influenza-inspired research.

It is possible to make some guesses about the nature of Ida Rolf’s research. Her work was centered on the nature of phosphatides, and in particular, lecithin. Lecithin plays a key role in the structure of cell membranes – without it, cells couldn’t maintain their structure distinct from their surroundings. Lecithin was discovered in 1846, and by the time of Dr Rolf’s work at Rockefeller, was a source of curiosity in biochemistry. Some of the interest may have had to do with the nature of viruses.

When a virus attacks the body, much of the life-or-death action takes place at the cell membrane. It is at the membrane that the virus attempts to attach grappling hooks and bind itself to the cell (or in the case of influenza, to slip into the lung cell itself and totally avoid detection by the immune system). So an understanding of lecithin’s role in the structure of the cell membrane would be important to understanding what actually occurs at the virus’ point of attack.

It is not known if Dr Rolf’s work with lecithin took place in the context of the Rockefeller Institute’s focus in the midst of the influenza epidemic, to understand the nature of how a virus attacks the body. But it is worth noting that Levene paid very little attention to lecithin until early 1918, then published dozens of articles and papers on the subject, with Ida Rolf and others, until the 1930’s when he seemed to lose interest in it. So her work was probably partly pure science and possibly at least in part stimulated by influenza and infectious disease research.