CONTROVERSY IS nothing new to the Mediterranean fruit fly. Its first U.S. appearance in Florida in 1929 sparked a terror so intense that Congress declared war upon it as quickly as it did on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.
An adventure that smacked of Teapot Dome and "The Hellstrom Chronicle" rolled into one, this fruit fly saga would become a tale of professional and political corruption, economic disaster, newspaper sensationalism, public hysteria and agricultural devastation.
What's more surprising is that insects weren't the cause, the entomologists were (with a little help from their newspaper friends). And once the smoke had cleared, the affair emerged as one of the most dismal, but least known, chapters in our national past. By comparison, California's current round of fruit fly frenzy and political infighting is but a trivial, contemporary footnote.
From the turn of the century until 1929, entomologists had settled upon the Medfly as the reigning insect threat to mankind, the one bug to keep out of the country at all costs. They feared its adaptability to all types of fruits, vegetables and plant life would make its eradication close to impossible once entrenched.
And having lost the battle against the cotton boll weevil in the South, in addition to inroads by the gypsy moth, the European corn borer, the San Jose scale and a host of other imported insects, they vowed eternal vigilance aganist Ceratitis capitacta. They also maneuvered a plant quarantine law through Congress in 1912 and scoured the ports for all traces of the insect.
But there was also a psychological dimension to their obsession. Entomologists had long suffered from a professional inferiority complex. They perceived their public image as one of white-haired, pitch-helmeted gentlemen with butterfly nets, dashing about in forests in search of exotic insects for their collections.
They resented their role as eccentric poor relations to the scientific community, deprived of the respect and the funding they needed to do their work. Yet adversity bonded them into an extraordinarily cohesive, if geographically dispersed, cardre of professionals who could count upon one another not to dissent from the common good when times called for unity.
These "bugologists," as they would be called, believed that insects eventually would gain dominion over mankind, and felt their own anointed role was to prevent that fate. At entomologists' annual meetings from the late 19th century into the 1920s, incoming presidents often preached of the day they would be called upon to save the world from calamity. There was no doubt they had their calling. All they lacked was the opportunity.
That opportunity came on April 7, 1929, in what seemsed an innocuous grapefruit grove near present-day Disney World. In it were larvae of the Mediterranean fruit fly. Within days, the entomological elite of the country had converged upon Florida, and then upon Washington, urging the stringent program of plant quarantine and insect eradication.
To delay, they said, even for a few days, would permit the fly's spread to a point of no return, spelling doom for much of the continent's fruits, vegetables and greenery. The least result would be the destruction of the country's fruit and vegetable industries, while the worst could be industrial society's fall into a preagricultural abyss so shocking that civilization itself would rip apart.
The eradication program called for massive destruction of fruit and vegetables in the inner fruit fly zones regardless of whether they were infested by the fly. (Less than 1 percent of destroyed fruit had been infested.)
That fruit spared from outright destruction faced repeated arsenate of lead sprayings which not only killed fruit flies, but also fruit and the trees they grew on. What fruit escaped these barbarisms underwent sterilization by heat or freezing which left it bland and barely edible.
Planters and local residents were marshalled, several times a week, into their groves and backyards by eradication officials who rigidly enforced details of cleaning up dropped fruit which the Medfly might infest.
And to make the picture of entomologists' martial authority over central Florida complete, pistol-packing guardsmen patrolled the roads from the "infested" zone, ostensibly to collect fruit, but generally intimidating tourists and natives alike.
As the eradication program wore on and its abuses because more evident, Floridians' early surge of civic cooperation turned to passive resistance, mass demonstration, organized lobbying and often to violence, or at least the threat of it.
At first, the public had been frightened into compliance by the Agriculture Department's and the Florida State Plant Board's unending barrage of "wartime" propaganda. But soon they began to believe that the official version of infestation, like the sensational out-of-state accounts, drew a graver conclusion than facts warranted.
To quell the mounting unrest, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Hyde twice sent blue ribbon presidential commissions to Orlando to investigate the program and certify its propriety. But it wasn't until a House Appropriations subcommittee convened in Florida in February 1930 that arguments against eradication finally found a forum.
Opponents charged that Florida entomology officials had criminally planted the fly in order to create a crisis. To consider that question requires an understanding of Florida's economic situation by 1929.
Discovery of Florida as a wintry retreat had only come with the World War I period, since hostilities abroad prevented more traditional vacations on the Rivera. The spectacular land boom that was to follow gushed people and capital into the state in the middle 1920s, though the real estate bubble finally burst in 1926.
Consequently, private tills began to feel the financial crunch as early as 1927-28, but Florida's treasury did not miss any revenue until 1929, when it was forced to cut its budget. Among the austerity measures the Florida Legislature discussed that year was the abolition of the State Plant Board, an employer mainly of entomologists.
A couple of weeks later, a State Plant Board employe discovered the Mediterranean fruit fly less than a mile from the agricultural experiment station where he worked. Floridians wondered why an insect which had never been in North America in the geological history of the planet should suddenly appear under such suspicious circumstances.
These questions raised the specter that the very officials entrusted with the task of eliminating the fly might have put it there in the first place. State Plant Board Commissioner Wilmon Newell, and others of his staff, were suddenly fair game for detractors claiming that the entomologists conspired to save their jobs and aggrandize their profession as well.
Newell's indignant denial was weakened by the charge of a former subordinate that Newell had instructed him to plant fruit fly pupae in the soil when periods of noninfestation threatened to shut down the eradication program.
Critics also claimed that for most of the extermination campaign there was hardly a fruit fly to be found in Florida. Even during the first three months of the battle, the infestation had never been out of control and the severe control measures had been unnecessary.
New Yorkers may have read of bands of fruit flies running rampant through the countryside, and cancelled their Florida vacations as a result, but research staffers on the eradication team were so pressed for flies they had to send to Hawaii for experimental insects.
In November 1929, as Congress was grumbling that the program should be terminated, entomologists found a convenient new infestation of four flies. A similar coincidence occurred in March 1930, the next time a fly was to be found in the state. On that occasion, A. C. Baker, head of research on location in Orlando, and an entomologist from the U.S. Plant Quarantine and Control Administration in Washington, contended that the eradication should come to an end.
Three days later, Newell's inspectors had found yet another of their timely infestations, the first in four months, so the eradicaton effort managed to linger for another year. But Floridians were nearing the end of their patience. AS A. J. Serdjenian, a prominent grower and developer, had thundered in the hearings: "We have to do something with these scientific men, because we have suffered too long. We cannot stand it any longer. They cannot fool us anymore."
Yet fool some of the people all of the time is what the entomologists had done -- and all of the people some of the time -- but not without an assist from some overzealous journalists. They sounded the drumbeat of war hysteria in newspapers throughout the country, not just in Florida. Thus, to object to the campaign in its earlier phases -- even to question it tentatively -- would visit the wrath of the community upon the "slacker" for not resisting the common foe.
"Citizens of America, repel this invading army," cried the editorial page of the Herald & Examiner, a Hearst paper in Chicago. Another newspaper compared the fruit flies to a beachhead of Japanese marines, and asked how Floridians could sit idly by in the face of such an incursion.
Others compared the exploits of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, and likened Florida's pathetic defense to pygmies holding the fort against the invading army of Flanders. Still another tried a World War I rallying cry -- "They shall not pass!" -- alluding to the French stand at Verdun.
Florida's troubles had found an especially avid outlet in the California press, and a prime reason lay in the benefit to be derived by Far Western citrus interests in hobbling the Florida competition. There were stalwart defenders of the federal plan to be found, from The Pasadena Star to The Riverside Press, most of which joined the chorus of California journalism demanding a long and vigorous prosecution of the eradication campaign.
The same was true of California's citrus establishment, whose secret jubilation over Florida's woes lead to full-scale propaganda of its own, plus a discreet lobby in Washington for a prolonged program.
As 1931 approached, Florida found itself in a dilemma wrought of the entomologists' fanaticism, the journalists' exaggeration and the Texans' and Californians' commerical greed.
The other irreconcilable in this recovery formula was political hatred between Rep. Wilbur Wood, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee, and C. M. Marlatt, chief of the Plant Quarantine and Control Administration, who Wood felt was the chief tyrant of a profession of tyrants.
Yet if Florida were to rebuild its fruit industry, the agriculture departments of each state would have to lift their embargoes, and that would only follow a clean bill of health from the federal Agriculture Department, meaning Marlatt and his underlings.
Unfortunately, federal entomologists would not certify Florida without another appropriation, which Wood was determined they wouldn't have. So for Floridians this convoluted standoff made friend seem foe, and foe seem friend.
Left strewn with ruined planters and failed banks -- 71 in all -- from the effects of the "Fruit Fly Depression," five months ahead of October's 1929 Wall Street crash, Floridians could do little but wait until the quarantine quietly slipped away in the spring of 1931.
As the St. Petersburg Independent put it in February 1930, "There are more angles to this fruit fly question than an old hound dog has fleas."
A sad fact is that not a penny of compensation was paid to an eradication victim, even after another congressional hearing during World War II.
Thus, Florida got the worst of two worlds, the cutting wedge of regulation in the tyranny of government men who stalked their orchards and ruined their livelihoods at whim, and the sheer brutality of laissez-faire for its unwillingness to compensate them for their sacrifices.
It would be good if entomologists knew more about the Medfly than its susceptibility to biological control and malathion spraying. But maybe we should be thankful just to know that, all things considered, Californians aren't having it as bad as it has been before.