It was sometime in 1963 that children throughout my entire town were herded over to the local high school to receive a polio vaccine that was administered in the form of a sugar cube. Since this program to eradicate polio was very successful, some kids were wondering why a similar effort wasn’t being done to rid America’s young population of the most widespread and contagious disease of them all, the affliction commonly known as cooties. Of course, one has to wonder how modern science would have gone about battling something that was only in the minds of children between the ages of 5 and 10, but real or not, the outbreak of cooties in Millbrae became so severe in the early 1960’s, that I think even a token attempt to halt it would have been appreciated.
Although the concept of cooties is generally linked to the Baby Boom generation, and is described as a make –believe infestation carried and spread by members of the opposite sex, the origin goes back to the United States’ involvement in World War I. As much of the fighting came in the form of “trench warfare,” thousands of foxholes inhabited by the troops became breeding grounds for lice, bugs, rats and various other germ carriers. The combination of infectious pests and thousands of men living in such close quarters made the spread of several diseases inevitable. The term cooties, which became a catch-all phrase for all of the ailments picked up by the soldiers, came from the Polynesian word “kutu,” meaning a parasitic biting insect.
After the war, returning veterans began applying the word cooties to many unsanitary situations found in and around their homes, and soon, their offspring picked up on the term, and comparing other kids to infectious germs became a common method of teasing on America’s playgrounds. A generation later, children held full ownership of the term, and the meaning of cooties eventually evolved from germ carrying parasites to some kind of invisible social stigma which could be transmitted through even the slightest amount a bodily contact. Anyone could be accused of having cooties, through their own behavior or by way of ill advised associations…it was kind of a childhood version of Communism.
I began hearing about cooties during the first grade, as the word was constantly being bounced around the schoolyard at recess, almost as much as soccer balls. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t bother to address the seriousness of cooties during class, so I had to rely on a fifth-grader to learn the in and outs of cooties. I was very lucky to run into this 10 year old chap when I did, because at that very time, Meadows Elementary School was in the midst of a cooties panic, and I needed all of the information I could get. It seems that some fourth-grade girl, who had a severe case of cooties, had recently moved, but not before she kissed the middle faucet of the school drinking fountain. Learning this, I now knew why no one at my school would ever drink from that particular faucet, even on the hottest days, while the lines for the left or right faucets were 25 kids long. Teachers, obviously out of the loop, would try pulling students out of the line, and encourage them to step right up to the middle faucet for immediate relief from their thirst, only to watch them walk away, still dry, but at least cootie free. Of course, no one had actually seen this gal kiss the middle faucet and most kids over the age of seven knew, deep down, that cooties were an imaginary ailment, but no matter… no one drank from that middle faucet for years. Maybe one would have to read Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” to really appreciate the situation.
It was inevitable that a make believe disease would inspire make believe cures. Just as the cooties outbreak reached its peek, “cootie nurses” started popping up all over the schoolyard, offering to administer “cootie shots.” I’ve never been quite sure what kind of training or qualifications these girls had, but it made sense that since females were the primary cause of cooties, it stood to reason that they’d have an inside track on eliminating them. The “cootie shot” consisted of tracing a circle on the patient’s forearm with the index finger, then dotting the middle, all while chanting the phrase, “Circle, circle, dot, dot…now you’ve had a cootie shot.” Unfortunately, the medical profession has always had its share of quacks, and occasionally boys, thinking they were getting treatment, would be unpleasantly surprised when the so-called nurse would change the wording to, “Circle, circle, square, square…now you have cooties everywhere”…certainly a case of blatant malpractice.
The idea of cooties seemed to fade away by the late 1960’s, without benefit of a national vaccine, telethon or even TV public service announcements. It could be that later generations came up with new ways of abusing each other, or that the internet age has rendered children too sophisticated for such nonsense. But the term cooties remains in our lexicon, and has been kept alive with constant references made by Bart Simpson, and even has a modern believer in the form of “Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). But in any case, the disease seems to have been controlled, and a major outbreak appears remote.
Note: The photo, taken over 50 years ago, is of a young boy with an advanced case of cooties, the bowtie serving as a dead giveaway.