The history of malaria is full of misconceptions about its cause


In the fall of 1881, some Washington doctors decided they had had enough. The city in which they practiced medicine was routinely abused as a de facto hotbed of a debilitating, sometimes fatal disease.

As the November 9, 1881 Washington Post story put it: “Washington has a scapegoat on his back for all the indefinable and unavoidable ills. It’s called malaria.”

The article had a headline that we would recognize today as clickbait: “Is malaria a myth?” According to the story, newspapers across the country were leading their readers to believe that “there is a fearsome beast above Washington, whose poisonous wings extend over the city, bringing death and destruction.”

And so some doctors started to back off. The District Physicians’ Syndicate adopted a resolution to poll its members and ask them about malaria. “It is clear that this view of the unhealthy state of our city is gaining momentum abroad, and therefore great damage is being done to its material prosperity,” the resolution read.

It was true that Washington had a bad reputation, in terms of malaria. A writer in Philadelphia had noted the “colossal city problems” caused by “disgusting accumulations” along the banks of the Potomac River. The writer joked that malaria was so common that members of Congress described the disease as a convenient excuse for everything from being late to meetings to suffering from heavy drinking.

A Post reporter called local doctors to ask about their experiences with malaria — or “so-called malaria,” as some observers referred to it. Some said malaria was a thing. Others it was not. one, a Dr. Hagnerhe said that malaria was present in the city but that it was overestimated.

“I only have about four or five cases of malaria, and those are on E Street on the riverfront and near Rollins Square,” he told the newspaper.

It’s foolish to sit outdoors with one’s head uncovered after dark in late summer and early fall, Hagner said. “Nothing can cause malaria fever so quickly,” he said.

Also dangerous: walking in the sun or “sleeping in a position where the night air blows on you.”

While people sought to determine the cause, 130 Washingtonians died of malaria in 1881.

The newspapers were full of advertisements for patent medicines to fight malaria. The manufacturer of Hostetter’s Bitters stated that their product was popular in the tropics, “where scorching heat gives off moisture, decomposing vegetation which produces the worst forms of fever, runny nose, and jaundice.”

Air toxins? decomposition of vegetation? What gives?

In December 1881, The Post published a lengthy letter from a local doctor named JB Johnson. Johnson recounted the history of malaria — noting that the name came from Italian words meaning “bad air” — and had an unambiguous reason: “Malaria is the result of the chemical effect between heat, water, and rotting or decomposing plant matter.”

Fermentation of plant material – a temperature between 67 and 75 degrees was thought to be most favorable for the formation of malaria – results in “carbonic acid gas”.

Johnson wrote that this gas “is found heavier than the atmosphere and sinks to the ground”. It was carried along the land by air currents, and dwelt in ravines, ravines and on the sides of mountains. Because it is heavier than air, it cannot cross water, a trait “clearly demonstrated” by the way in which sailors were affected only after their ships entered malaria-stricken ports.

Reading the 1880s’ coverage of malaria makes you want to jump in a time machine, grab a doctor by the lapel of his white coat and shout, “It’s mosquitoes, you fools!”

But even if you do, some doctors still get it wrong. In September 1881, the Washington Critic published a brief article on a doctor’s advice that the best treatment for malaria is a mosquito bite.

The research paper noted, “This is a bit astonishing for the uninitiated, but the theory is based on the fact, confirmed at least, that the two always go together, and where malaria is highly prevalent, mosquitoes spread in great quantities, and that the venom for their sting is nature’s antidote to malaria.” malaria”.

One wonders how many Washington residents followed his advice.

Karen Masterson“They were a product of their time,” said an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Richmond. “Physicians, you know, aren’t necessarily programmed to be open minded. Research doctors, yes, but regular doctors, not so much. They know what they know and they do what they do.”

Masterson is the author of Project Malaria: The US Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure. In the end, she said, it was medical researchers who figured it out.

In 1899, The Post carried an 11-line summary titled “Malarial Mosquito Found.” work in India and West Africa, Ronald RossBritish specialist in tropical diseases, It has been proven that malaria is spread by mosquitoes. Received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1902.

Masterson said we should not judge these doctors too harshly in the 1880s.

“You see what you want to believe,” she said. “You are clinging to deeply rooted thoughts.”

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