Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Gospel of the House Fly

The Gospel of the House Fly

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 29, 2009

Maybe it’s an unintended consequence of correlation, but it occurs to me that our church magazines just don’t do as good a job as they used to at supplying us with articles on house flies. You know what I mean?

Take, for instance, the fine report on “The House Fly and Disease,” by Prof. John Zimmerman Brown of the University of Utah’s medical department, published in the 1909 Young Woman’s Journal. Now that’s an article providing a dose of everything our young women search for in vain in The New Era.

It’s a delightful article to read over the breakfast table, with its charming opening:

When you see a fly crawling on the butter or bread or any article of food you are about to eat, does it occur to you that this insect may have just been wading around in sputum that was recently coughed up from the lungs of a tuberculous patient? If a fly alights on baby’s face and crawls about his little nose and mouth, do you know that it may be depositing there the deadly germ of typhoid fever that it has just brought from a nearby sick room or open closet [i.e., outhouse]?

For those of us who have been simply yearning for an adequate way to distinguish between the stable fly and the house fly, Dr. Brown provides us with this helpful test:

The stable fly [has] mouth parts … adapted for biting. It looks so much like the house fly that one almost has to let it bite before finding out whether it is really a house fly or not.

Many of our young ladies are naturally interested in hospitality, home decor, and nurturing of the young. Those whose interests extend to the care of God’s tiny creatures may find this useful:

The common house fly … breeds out of doors, laying its eggs by preference in horse manure where they soon hatch and the young grow and flourish. In the absence of this substance the fly will deposit its eggs in dooryard filth, garbage, and other refuse mixed with human excreta.

How reassuring to know there is a substitute, for those of us who, alas, no longer have a ready supply of domestic horse manure!

Genealogy is not neglected:

The total life cycle for a single generation [of house fly] in warm weather is therefore approximately ten days. This gives in our climate sufficient time for the development of twelve or thirteen generations of flies in a single summer.

Articles such as this also have the potential of stimulating our young women’s facility with mathematics, incidentally giving us a charming view of domestic conditions in 1909:

A house fly lays on an average one hundred and twenty to one hundred and forty eggs at a time; and when considers the abundance and universal occurrence of suitable larval food, the myriads of house flies that infest our habitations during the summer and fall are accounted for. Dr. Leonard O. Howard, chief of the division of entomology in U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in one fourth of a pound of horse manure, taken from the center of a pile one hundred and sixty larvae, and one hundred forty six pupae of the fly were taken. This would make about twelve hundred flies in one pound of stable refuse. While this is not a fair average, it indicates possibilities.

And who doesn’t encourage our young women to stretch toward goals and examine the possibilities?

Okay, okay. Public health is and was a serious matter, and articles like this one helped to teach the young women that flies were not merely an annoyance but a serious threat to their families. This was published less than ten years after army medical personnel finally proved that insects transmitted diseases to human – in that case, mosquitoes and yellow fever, which had killed tens of thousands in the United States in recent epidemics. The mechanics of such transmission of disease was new to most readers in 1909, and Prof. Brown took care to explain the process:

As it has been demonstrated repeatedly that the house fly carries on its feet, head, and mouth parts, bacteria or disease germs, let us consider for a moment some of its habits. The fly is attracted by noisome odors; it hovers about and feeds upon human excreta, blood, pus, sputum and decaying matter of all kinds. It comes into our homes and swarms about the kitchen and pantry to such an extent that we are forced to put up screens and wire doors for protection. Its habits well adapt it for the smearing of its body and the filling of its digestive system with disease germs which it can easily deposit on whatever it comes in contact with. virulent organisms have been found on its proboscis, its feet, and head, as well as in its excreta, the well known fly specks. The fly is best adapted for disseminating typhoid fever, dysenteria, Asiatic cholera and tuberculosis. At a recent tuberculosis exhibition in new York City, flies that had previously waded through tuberculous sputum were allowed to walk on plates of culture media (a form of gelatine in which disease germs can be grown). These plates were then kept in an incubator for twenty-four hours, when it was found that colonies of the tubercle bacilli were growing all along the tracks which the flies had made.

Defensive measures were called for, and readers learned of the screening laws recently enacted in New Jersey, Kansas, New York and Illinois.

Offensive measures were also needed: Readers were cautioned that “the war upon flies cannot be successfully waged with fly paper and fly traps alone,” but would have to be fought by destroying or distancing the fly’s breeding grounds. Although young women were not charged in this particular article with taking the lead, they learned that the daily collection of manure, which needed to be covered with chloride of lime, was effective against the worst sources of flies, and that careful disposition of household garbage and the regular cleaning of garbage receptacles would lessen the domestic problem.

Mormonism has always been a practical religion as well as a religious practice. Startling and gag-producing as it might be, I’m still tickled to see evidence of that fact in articles like this one.



  1. One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about the Jehovah Witness magazines is that they always have interesting articles like this one on flies. Right now there is an excellent article on “The Wonders of Corn” at

    Comment by Kent (MC) — June 29, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  2. Shucks, Kent, I’m glad to ‘ear that. I hope they win a Niblet. Yuck-yuck! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 29, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  3. Dr. Leonard O. Howard, chief of the division of entomology in U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in one fourth of a pound of horse manure, taken from the center of a pile . . .

    There is something smelly about good ol’ Dr. Howard’s methodology. Going to the center of the pile is not random sampling. I suspect his numbers could by off by a few hundred flies at least. It would also be helpful to know how the numbers vary from horse manure to cow manure? Does the breed of the animal have an effect? How many flies per fourth of a pound of Herford manure versus, say, Angus?

    Professor Brown really needs to get his HBO together before he quotes from the likes of Dr. Howard in such a scholarly journal as that of the YW.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — June 29, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  4. Heh, heh, heh … Paul has cracked the code … another fly post must mean that I’m tired of discussions of demerol and oxycontin and Gary, Indiana and CPR-performed-on-a-bed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 29, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  5. What do Mormons and manure and have in common?

    Spread em around and they do a lot of good. Pile em up and they start to stink.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — June 29, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

  6. This was surely in concurrence with the hygeine reform of the RS that championed a state-wide push to get rid of flies. For example the July 1914 RS a lesson on Health and Hygiene included this:

    We are enclosing also bulletins for our public health committee. We urge our sisters to assist in giving publicity to these bulletins, and to do all in their power toward the extermination of the death dealing fly.

    The fly trap should be made and used.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 29, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  7. My mother was raised a Baptist in Salt Lake, but hated flies with the passion of a Mia Maid who had read Professor Brown’s article. She used to quote statistics to us children about the potential number of Summer flies eliminated if one killed a fly in early Spring.

    Leaving the screen door ajar was one way to elicit such passionately delivered statistics. This did not induce me to remember to close the screen door, but did cause me to visualize what would happen if all of those flies hatched early in the warm season survived until October. Not a pleasant thought.

    I once brought up the fact that something else besides her fly swatter must be killing a lot of flies or we would be pretty much inundated, if her figures were correct. She just looked at me as if I had revealed myself to be a traitor in the Fly Wars. The thought still makes me a little uncomfortable.

    Comment by S. Taylor — June 29, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  8. J., I’ll bet the fly trap the RS was promoting is the one in the first fly post I linked to in #4.

    That’s some fierce passion, S.! You remind me of my parents’ admonitions, although they weren’t quite so passionate: “Close the door! You’re letting all the heat out!” in the winter, and “Close the door! You’re letting all the flies in!” in the summer.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 29, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  9. I had forgotten about that post and I hadn’t made the connection when I previously read it. But surely, it must be. Fascinating.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 29, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  10. This is why in urban areas garbage collection is weekly on a regular basis, as the life cycle of the fly, as noted, is 10 days. Even if the garbage is fly infested, it gets removed before the larvae have time to grow to adulthood. At least that’s the plan. A new garbage removal service for downtown Seattle FAILED miserably earlier this year. Rumor has it that they have worked out the bugs, finally. .

    Comment by kevinf — June 29, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  11. kevinf, I never thought about the pickup schedule being timed to the life cycle of the fly rather than the convenience of a 40-hour work week. I’ll have to remember this if any place I live considers handing out larger cans and collecting only once every two weeks, or anything like that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 29, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

  12. Too lazy to plow through enough materials to get the exact dates, but it seems to me that it was in the early 1920s that the RS sponsored a “swat the fly” campaign. Sisters collected the flies they had killed in fruit jars and brought them to RS and together they celebrated their collective public health effort. I remember one RS magazine even had a “Swat the fly” skit for RS sisters to perform. This odd chapter of RS history was celebrated in the RS sesquicentennial exhibit at the Church museum in 1992. (I was the curator of the exhibit.) Yours truly caught a jar of flies, mostly at Wheeler Historic Farm in SL County and then put them in an antique canning jar from my MIL’s home.

    At about the same time the Mutual girls were going after mosquitos by pouring kerosene on standing water.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — June 29, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  13. Reminds me of the “Kill a Rat Day” in Korea. I still have a poster from that valiant civic effort.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — June 30, 2009 @ 5:22 am

  14. This reminded me too of the MIA destruction of mosquito habitat that Marjorie Conder mentions. My mother-in-law has spoken of that as one of the Personal Progress-type activities of her day.

    Comment by John Mansfield — June 30, 2009 @ 8:47 am

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