The Ebola outbreak has kept Atlanta in the headlines – or datelines, to be exact – these last few months thanks to the critical work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal government agency known as the CDC is on the front lines of the global fight against the deadly disease and other public health concerns.

The lineage of the CDC and its current home near Emory University can be traced to another infectious disease, malaria, which crippled the Southeast in the early 20th Century, and to former Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff.

Woodruff owned Ichauway Plantation, a hunting preserve and working farm in Baker County, Ga., about 200 miles south of Atlanta. During a 1929 visit there, he met one of his employees who, a few minutes after shaking Woodruff’s hand, suffered a seizure and passed out. The man – and many of his fellow tenant farmers – had malaria.

"Mr. Woodruff went out and bought a barrel of quinine to distribute not just to Ichauway residents, but to everyone in Baker County," said Randy Gue, curator of modern political and historical collections at Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Library.

For the next few years, Woodruff continued to anonymously purchase and give away the antimalarial drug to anyone in the area who would agree to follow doctor’s orders. Eventually, he decided to personally fund Baker County’s first public health department in the town of Newton. The benefactor was listed simply as a “friend of the community.”

“The state of Georgia had been hammered by the Great Depression, and didn’t have money to pay for any county services,” Gue explains. “And Baker County was poor in ways we cannot imagine…no railroad, no highway and no industry.”

By the late 1930s, Woodruff had created the Woodruff Malaria Fund at Emory and asked the university’s department of pathology to study the disease’s foothold in an effort to eradicate malaria in Baker County, where more than 40 percent of the population was infected at the time. In addition to collecting blood samples from residents, researchers measured stream flow rates and groundwater hydrology, and analyzed mosquito populations (which transmit the disease).

“It was the first truly comprehensive field study of malaria,” Gue said. “Before then, the disease had only been studied in the lab.”

The team’s findings quickly caught the attention of the Georgia Department of Public Health and the U.S. Public Health Service. “The data they were getting was persuasive,” Gue adds. “That was the point in time when the relationships that would lead to the location of the CDC in Atlanta began.”

When the U.S. entered World War II, the government did not want soldiers to contract malaria before heading off to battle – or to bring the disease back home when they returned. So, in 1942 the U.S. Public Health Service set up a program called the Malaria Control in War Areas to prevent the spread of malaria. And since many military training bases were in the South, Atlanta was chosen as its headquarters.

In 1946, with peace restored, the agency changed its name to the Communicable Disease Center and first adopted the CDC acronym. The center had expanded its focus to other communicable diseases and outgrown its space, but government funding stalled following the war.

That’s when Woodruff re-entered the picture, striking a deal with Emory in which the university would sell the CDC 15 acres of land on Clifton Road for the grand sum of $10. CDC employees pitched in to make the purchase.

As was often the case with Woodruff’s philanthropic efforts, the gift was anonymous.

“Mr. Woodruff worked behind the scenes,” Gue said. “There was rarely a paper trail or a smoking gun behind his good deeds.”