Mosquitoes, Malaria and Man

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Gordon Harrison holds a Ph.D. and was trained as a military historian and environmentalist. Prior to writing Mosquitoes, Malaria and Man, he was the author of George C. Marshall: Education of a General (with Forrest C. Pogue) and Earthkeeping. He has served as an environmentalist for the Ford Foundation.

It is very appropriate for a military historian to write a book about mankind’s war against malaria. The parasitic cause of the “fever” spreads through the agency of the Anopheles mosquito, which, after biting an infected person, transmits the parasite by biting a previously uninfected or recovered human host. Since it first engaged the attention of modern researchers, malaria has been dealt with in quasi-military terms. The past century has thus been marked by warfare against the disease. Most of the efforts, as Harrison notes, have been directed against “the enemy”—the mosquito—thus involving the first war of extermination directed deliberately against another species. At present, as Harrison points out, malaria is enjoying a terrifying resurgence in some of the developing countries. Great battles have been won and lost against the disease, but the war will probably continue as a standoff into the indefinite future.

Harrison begins his account with a brief history of malaria extending back to ancient times, noting that scientific interest in malaria was a direct result of the Age of Imperialism. During the late nineteenth century, the United States and a variety of European powers engaged in undisguised, full-scale empire building. The resulting colonial empires were built at the expense of peoples in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. One of the least beneficial aspects of colonialism was the widespread incidence of malaria among white colonizers. As more and more tropical territory passed under European and American control, there was an attendant rise in malaria, and European and American scientists and physicians began the first systematic attempts to understand and check it.

Harrison describes the difficulties in first identifying the cause of the disease, nineteenth century medicine being dominated by the “germ theory” of disease at the expense of other analysis. Finally, the parasite was established as the cause of malaria. The next question was, simply, How did human beings ingest the parasite? Was it taken in with the stagnant, impure water so typical of malarial areas? Dr. Patrick Manson, an English researcher, was the first to identify the mosquito as the carrier of the parasite. What Manson did not discover was the process by which the parasite was transferred from mosquitoes to men; this great discovery was made by a central figure of Harrison’s book, Dr. Ronald Ross.

Harrison makes sensitive use of the Ross memoirs and papers to construct his portrait. Ronald Ross...

(The entire section is 1181 words.)