Chicken Coop Epidemiology

With the exception of washing baby bottles, when I married and changed my career to poultry farming, my clinical work was mainly vaccinating chickens before they came into production, for New Castle and Pox. There are many strains of New Castle, but it is a disease that essentially affects the central nervous system.

Every year, in the late spring or early summer, we would join Marty’s parents, Rosie and Abie, at our farm and then later at their farm, for inoculating. Rosie would wear an old housedress, rubber galoshes, and a babushka. I had jeans, a painter’s hat, and sneakers. Our employees would coax or carry the chickens to one side of the room, and create a pen with screens; to keep the vaccinated birds separate from those that weren’t. We screened off a section of the room with enough chickens for us to handle easily. When the chickens in that pen were vaccinated, we moved the fencing to form a pen for the next batch. This procedure was repeated until each chicken received the vaccine.

The men would catch about three chickens at a time and spread their wings out on a table, so Rosie and I could stick each chicken with a needle and vaccine, between the wing and the web; referred to as the wing /web method. We had to work quickly; the dust was flying and the chickens were squawking. Every now and then we would stick ourselves. You couldn’t blame the hens if they gave you an occasional “k’nip.” After all, don’t you feel like “sticking” it to whomever gives you a “shot”?

Rosie would always rinse the remaining drops of ketchup from the bottle, when cooking, to use in soups and sauces. She would also add a little water to the almost empty vial, to remove all of the remaining vaccine. I too, like to salvage the last drop from jars and bottles, but ketchup isn’t exactly vaccine. When I mentioned this to Marty, he accused me of overreacting and explained the concept of “herd immunity”. Many birds “escape”, and it was of little consequence if some chickens received a diluted dose of the vaccine. If most of the flock received the vaccine, the bird that avoided inoculation was not apt to get sick, because the incidence of disease carrying organisms was low. The possibility of an outbreak, therefore, was slim.

It wasn’t long before my mother-in-law and I joined the ranks of unemployed “chicken stickers”, when we adopted more effective, and less labor intensive means of immunization. One of the preferred techniques was disseminating the vaccine in a water spray, at night, when the chickens were asleep.

We are able to maintain a higher standard for immunizing people because the person administering the vaccine has control of the procedure. However this person has no control over the population that chooses not to be vaccinated, for fear of adverse results, and is willing to benefit from the “herd immunity” supplied by those who do assume risks. Unless your doctor advises otherwise, it is everybody’s responsibility to share possible risks so infections are few or non-existent.

Vaccinating reminds me in some ways of voting. Recently, I attended a meeting of our town committee where the November elections are the main topic of business. I heard people say, ”Oh, he’s in a safe district, he won’t have trouble getting elected, and my vote won’t be missed.” We can never be sure of the dynamics of politics. Every vote is necessary. Just as we shouldn’t rely on “herd immunity” for immunization, we shouldn’t rely on “herd immunity” in elections. We have a shared responsibility to control the possibility of an epidemic through immunization. We have a shared responsibility to elect competent public officials through the ballot.

Healthy chickens mean healthy eggs.

Healthy chickens mean healthy eggs.




From Biochemistry to Chicken Farming & Beyond

Reading Judith Warner’s “Ready to Rejoin the Rat Race,” New York Times Magazine”, August 11, reminded me of my own journey in the world of work, and the stumbling blocks along the way.

When I graduated from Hunter College in 1952 with a biology degree, I was offered several jobs throughout New York City. I accepted a position in Steroid Biochemistry at Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, where I traced radioactive Carbon 14 in extracts of cancerous tissues. I thoroughly enjoyed the job and the work environment.

Yet there were employee relations, not acceptable in the workplace today, that weren’t questioned then.  For example, one morning, as I exited the subway, I heard someone say, “hi, Babe.”  I turned around only to see my boss behind me. We shared a laugh and walked to the laboratory together. I was not offended. He was a wonderful person and always respectful.

It wasn’t in the cards for me to become another Marie Curie. I was a biochemist for less than two years when I met Martin Klein, through a mutual friend at SKI. When we married I didn’t wish to commute from Madison, Connecticut to New York on what was at that time, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railway and left the job. There were opportunities for employment at both Yale and St.Raphael’s hospitals in New Haven, but the pay was considerably less than what I earned in New York. My husband convinced me to work on our poultry farm with him, assuring me that we would enjoy a rich life together.

So I morphed from a research assistant to a chicken farmer. The closest thing I did that resembled laboratory work was vaccinating chickens against diseases, hardly under sanitary clinical conditions. I also helped Marty treat a hen with an abscess. She survived!

It was most exciting when we received a shipment of baby chicks. My children stayed home from school to help unload the chicks and get them settled under gas brooder stoves. Marty and I were rarely apart. We were partners in the business and attended conferences on raising poultry together. We packed, sold, and delivered eggs. I was in charge of all the bookkeeping, finances, taxes and insurance. I purchased merchandise and supplies and hired farm workers. When we expanded the business I introduced a line of gourmet and health foods to our retail operation.

While my two youngest children were still toddlers I worked part -time in a chemistry research lab at Yale University, School of Medicine. This position was short lived because I was unable to find a nanny. Reliable day care was scarce or non-existent.

Years later, when I was in my late forties, I started thinking about expanding my career. My laboratory skills were rusty and I was more interested in improving the delivery of health care than working with test tubes. I explored several graduate programs relating to health care and volunteered to serve on many boards of agencies that worked toward expanding health services for the underserved.  I remember going for an interview with the head of the department of a graduate program, and was asked if I wanted to spend my life as a volunteer, when he read my resume. It was the same story of how does one get experience if nobody will give you the chance.

After I earned a Master’s degree in Health Care Management, I was hired as a senior planner at the regional office of the federal Health Systems Agency. My specialty was Certificate of Need Review; my function was to establish new, much needed services, and also eliminate needless, costly duplication. Unfortunately this position didn’t last. The federal government didn’t consider investing in health planning necessary. Does this sound familiar? The organization was downsized while undergoing restructuring. Since I was the last hired, I was the first fired. Within a few years the Health Systems Agencies were eliminated.

During the early 1980’s we closed our farm and “retired”. Our partnership did not end when we gave up farming. We served in the Peace Corps as a team. Marty and I also provided technical assistance as agricultural volunteers, on assignments with AID, Aid to International Development. We worked with farmers in South America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, West Africa, and the U.S. We were involved in our community, sitting on several boards and active in politics. Both us were elected to public office; I was a member of the Board of Selectmen from 1975-1977 and Marty was elected First Selectman from 2005-2007.

 Of our many experiences, one of the most rewarding was working for Vista, Volunteers in Service to America, now known as Americorps.  Marty and I helped develop community gardens in the inner city of Hartford to enable the gardeners to have fresh vegetables and stretch their incomes. We provided greenhouses, sought contributions of seed, plants and tools, and used our truck to deliver this to the gardeners. I learned to use a computer and wrote the press releases for the garden newsletter, “The Green Thumb.”

When either of us held public office we could depend on the other for help. Several years ago we gave our farm a facelift and a new purpose. With our son, we are currently the proprietors of a golf driving range, developed on the site of the farm. We continue to have lunch together every day.

The search for employment and fulfillment didn’t begin with the “Baby-boomers”. We pre-Boomers also tread that path.

Marty as Vista volunteer

Marty as Vista volunteer

Community Gardens

Community Gardens