Conversations from the Hall of Fame
William L. Mengeling, veterinary research virologist, interviewed 2001
(Time: ~9:14 minutes)
My name is William L. Mengeling. Just before I retired, I was research leader of the Virus and Prion Diseases of Livestock Research Unit, at the National Animal Disease Center, in Ames, Iowa.
Growing Up I was born in Elgin Illinois, it's northern Illinois, near Chicago. We lived the south side of Chicago for many years. My dad worked in a factory but he always wanted a little business of his own so to speak and we had a mink ranch. It was out in the country on the south side of Chicago and then he needed more space for the mink ranch so he moved to a place called Reeceville, Illinois bought ten acres of woods there. Then he needed even more space and he'd always thought of owning a farm, we moved to southern Wisconsin and had a mink ranch and a dairy farm for quite a few years. That's where I became interested in agriculture seemed to me the life for me. When my dad milked the cows, I'd go walking out in the fields to see the crops grow so to speak and I just fell in love with the farm and farm life, that environment.
Education So I went to pre-vet at a place called Platteville--Platteville, Wisconsin--it's now the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, two years then I needed money to go on to school particularly veterinary school so I volunteered for the draft. The Korean War was on at that time. Served two years in the service, never did go to Korea, then came back to school at Kansas State University. A bachelor of science there and a DVM was graduated in 1960. I wanted to be a small animal practitioner. Did that. Went to Albuquerque, New Mexico then was offer a job another position considerably more money in Oklahoma City. I went there and that practice just wasn't the same quality as the one I was used to and I decided to go back to Kansas State and visit with folks about the possibility of a practice in the Midwest because I really did long to go back to the Midwest.
Why Research? When I went back Kansas State, a classmate of mine from veterinary school, was finishing up a masters in microbiology and he said, "Bill there is a brand new laboratory being built in Ames, Iowa"--a research laboratory. I always thought I might have some interest in research but I went there really with the idea, I applied for a position was accepted, went there with the idea that I would have a chance to look at small animal practices ones that I might become a partner in or buy but then I was captured, captivated or captured, by research. The intellectual challenge of research is for certain people, and I'm one of those people, is difficult it's an addition I call it and I decided then my career, my future was going to be in research.
Early Career I was assigned to a hog cholera project. Hog cholera was a major disease of swine at that time. The country was trying to eradicate hog cholera. They needed a diagnostic test. People had been working and trying to develop a diagnostic test for many many years. We were very fortunate. We developed that test and then I was really captured by it. The excitement of it all--international travel, etcetera and providing information to others and knowing you contributed to such a program was wonderful for me. I was a full fledged researcher from then on.
The disease is present in most of the rest of the world. We eradicated hog cholera, in broad terms, we eradicated hog cholera and we managed to keep hog cholera from the United States in all the years between in fact hog cholera was for all practical purposes eradicated in the late 60s.
I've been very fortunate in working with ARS in that throughout my career I've been well funded for my research. I've always tried to focus on the major problems and it just so happens I work with swine viral diseases, with major swine viral diseases, and I suppose in part that's why I've been given pretty much free reign to research what I felt was important, germane, what was the issue of the day so it's just been a wonderful experience.
After hog cholera we tackled a disease called hemagglutinating encephalomyelitis virus induced vomiting and wasting disease, then next we isolated a virus that was a major cause of reproductive failure in swine we discovered that is was the major cause of swine reproductive failure. We developed diagnostic tests, defined the pathogenesis of the disease, developed vaccine, once that disease was under control we moved on to, well there were some diseases in between, but psuedorabies an eradication program for psuedorabies. I hope that we have contributed to that and soon that disease will be eradicated from the United States, the swine industry.
Then we went onto a disease called porcine reproductive respiratory disease. A disease that still is a problem. We haven't conquered it yet but it's probably the most costly disease ever faced by the swine industry and as the name implies it causes reproductive and respiratory disease in pigs. A disease or virus that just suddenly appeared in the United States in the late 1980s. Nobody knows from where it came but it just erupted so to speak become a major problem for the industry is still a major problem.
We've developed vaccines. We have patented vaccines that are marketed commercially now one of the two major vaccines, a diagnostic tests, differential test, etcetera and the most recent effort was to develop a influenza vaccine. A new type of influenza appeared in the swine industry recently and we, in conjunction with a commercial company, developed a vaccine that should soon be marketed for a new strain of influenza.
Unfinished Business Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, a terrible handle for it but nevertheless and that's a regret that I have. I retired before we'd conquered it. You know I'd hoped that before I retired we'd have it under control but it's been particularly difficult. It's a virus that is doesn't stimulate a good immune response and for example, isn't the same of course but AIDs virus, HIV, human immune deficiency virus billions have been spent on research already and we still do not have a vaccine. Well PRRS virus probably isn't to that extent as far as immune response but it just doesn't develop an immune response. So it's extremely difficult to develop a good vaccine. We have the pathogenesis to find, we have good diagnostic tools but we still do not have an adequate vaccine. We have vaccines but not the 99% type vaccines.
Words of Wisdom Important thing, in research in general, I would say is the enthusiasm, the motivation for research. If it doesn't capture your heart, if that's not what you are sure you'd like to do, then probably move on to something else because there are a lot of hours and not necessarily exceptionally high pay and so you have to have a love for that area.
The intellectual challenge is tremendous, it's limitless from the standpoint of you never achieve everything you'd like to achieve. I've said that ARS provided me with research tools and financial backing and any limitations that I've had in accomplishing things have been my own inherent limitations, intellect or motivation or what have you.
It's a career that I think a person should be excited when they get out of bed in the morning. That may sound a bit of an exaggeration but for most of my career I've been anxious to get up and get to work and start working on the problem at hand. I certainly would recommend research to any young person if they feel they have a passion for it. It's a great life, a great career and I have no regrets what so ever about, anything I've done in life really, but certainly not in my research career.