The Journal of Economic History


An Impossible Undertaking: The Eradication of Bovine Tuberculosis in the United States

a1 Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute of Governmental Affairs at the University of California, Davis, 95616, and member of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. E-mail:
a2 Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 27599-3305 and Research Associate at the NBER. E-mail:


In 1917, after scientific breakthroughs allowed for the early detection of bovine tuberculosis, the USDA began a campaign to eradicate the disease. Agents inspected nearly every cattle farm in the country and condemned roughly 4 million reactors to slaughter without full compensation. This article analyzes how the eradication program functioned, how incentives were aligned to ensure widespread participation without excessive moral hazard problems, and why the United States led most European nations in controlling the disease. The U.S. campaign was a spectacular success, reducing human suffering and death and yielding benefits in the farm sector alone that exceeded ten times the cost.