Date of Award
Program or Major
Doctor of Philosophy
W. Jeffrey Bolster
This dissertation tells the forgotten history of the American teredo epidemic. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an assortment of native and invasive wood-boring marine organisms, known collectively as “teredo,” swept through the ports and harbors of the United States. Teredo’s penchant for wood, both for shelter and sustenance, made wharves and wooden ships easy targets. Because teredo enters timber as tiny juveniles, and grows to maturity beyond view, it was often detectable only after a wharf had collapsed or a ship had sunk. Teredo’s unpredictability grated on people so much so that the borer was rarely mentioned apart from the ominous saying, “the ravages of the teredo.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, teredo frustrated coastal people immensely, and they responded to the epidemic in a variety of ways. Developing freshwater estuaries and filling tidelands were common adaptations to borers, and have given many coastal landscapes the look they have today. But the epidemic wasn’t only about people fighting borers; shipworms also drove a wedge between people. For instance, teredo-free port communities liked to criticize teredo-infested harbors. This sort of “teredo-slandering” became common along the west coast, where cities all tried to stand out. So reviled were borers that the word “teredo” even became a widely used pejorative metaphor that captured the resentment that people felt towards society. “Teredo” could mean everything from “furtive” to “ruthless” and could be flung at people of different political leanings and even ethnicities. The epidemic, in short, was just as much about people as teredo.
By the mid-twentieth century, science and technology caught up to teredo. Steel hulled ships, improved timber treatments, and better understandings of woodborer biology and ecology all helped to lessen teredo’s ravages. After San Francisco Bay and New England were hit with costly woodborer attacks, the federal government finally stepped in and organized research, first through the National Research Council, and then by the Bureau of Docks and Yards. After WWII, professional woodborer researchers helped bring the teredo epidemic to an end. Resurrecting this forgotten epidemic underscores the need for more marine and coastal environmental histories.
Nelson, Derek Lee, "SHIPWORMS AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN COASTLINE" (2018). Doctoral Dissertations. 2386.