As early as 1826, a chronic debilitating intestinal disease of cattle was recognized. Its characteristics and cause (etiology) were not of any currently known disorder. It was not until 1894 that the ailment was recognized as an infectious disease with a unique etiology.
The discovery by Johne and Frothingham
On October 23, 1894, in the Oldenburg region of Germany, a farmer purchased a cow that failed to produce milk or gain weight satisfactorily. A local veterinarian by the name of Herr Frederick Harmes examined the cow and, noting the diarrhea and weight loss, suspected intestinal tuberculosis. The cow tested negative by the tuberculin skin test however. It died the following spring and Dr. Harmes sent its intestines, stomach, and omentum for examination to the Veterinary Pathology Unit in Dresden. There the tissues were examined by Dr. H.A. Johne and Dr. L. Frothingham, a visiting scientist from the Pathology Unit in Boston, Massachusetts. They noted the thickened intestinal mucosa and enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes. On histologic examination, they found that the intestinal wall was heavily infiltrated with leukocytes and epithelioid cells and occasional giant cells. Using an acid-fast stain, abundant acid-fast (red staining) bacteria were seen throughout the inflamed tissues. Although the organisms resembled the bacteria that caused tuberculosis, a sample of the infected tissue containing the organisms failed to cause disease when injected into guinea pigs. Johne and Frothingham concluded that the disease observed in the cow was caused by the bacterium that causes tuberculosis in birds (Mycobacterium avium) and, in recognition of the pathologic similarity to intestinal tuberculosis(normally caused by the bacterium that causes tuberculosis in cattle, Mycobacterium bovis), proposed the name "pseudotuberculous enteritis" for the disease.
First report of Johne's disease in the U.S.Leonard Pearson (1868-1909) was first to describe the occurrence of Johne's disease in the U.S. in 1908. His paper was titled "A note on the occurrence in America of chronic bacterial dysentery of cattle" (Am. Vet. Rev. 32:602-605, 1908). Pearson published this report while serving as Dean of the veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania, 1897-1909. A plaque hangs at the school in his memory. The photo shown here was generously provided by Raymond W. Sweeney, VMD, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine).