The history of malaria is riddled with misconceptions about its cause

The history of malaria is riddled with misconceptions about its cause


In the fall of 1881, some doctors in Washington decided they had had enough. The city where they practiced medicine was routinely reviled as a literal hotbed of a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

As a November 9, 1881 story in The Washington Post put it: “Washington has a scapegoat on whose back is laid the burden of all indefinable and unavoidable ills. It’s called malaria.”

The article had a headline we would recognize today as clickbait: “Is malaria a myth?” According to the story, newspapers across the country led their readers to believe that “over Washington hangs a dreaded monster whose poisonous wings are stretched out over the city, shedding death and destruction.”

And so some doctors started pushing back. The District Medical Association has passed a resolution to poll its members and ask them about malaria. “Clearly, this view of the unhealthy state of our city is gaining ground abroad and is seriously damaging its material prosperity,” the resolution said.

It was true that Washington had a bad reputation, speaking malaria. A Philadelphia writer had noted the city’s “miasmatic problems” caused by “disgusting accumulations” along the banks of the Potomac. Malaria was so common, the writer joked, that congressmen used the ailment as a convenient excuse for everything from being late to meetings to suffering a hangover.

A Post reporter contacted local doctors to ask about their experiences with malaria – or ‘so-called malaria’, as some observers called it. Some said malaria was a thing. Others that it wasn’t. one one dr. Hagnersaid malaria was present in the city but overrated.

“I only have four or five cases of malarial fever, and these are on E Street on the riverbank and near Rawlins Square,” he told The Post.

Hagner said it was unwise to sit outside with an uncovered head after nightfall in late summer and early fall. “Nothing will cause malaria as quickly as this,” he said.

Also dangerous: walking in the sun or “sleeping in such a position that the night air blows over you”.

While people were trying to figure out the cause, 130 Washingtonians died of malarial fever in 1881.

Newspapers were full of advertisements for antimalarial drugs. The creator of Hostetter’s Bitters crowed that the product was popular in the tropics, “where the scorching heat from the damp, decaying vegetation exhales the air poison from which the worst forms of fever and fever and bile remittance were caused.”

Air poison? Rotting vegetation? What gives?

In December 1881, The Post published a long letter from a local doctor called JB Johnson. Johnson told about the history of malaria – the name, he pointed out, came from the Italian words for “bad air” – and its cause was unequivocal: “Malaria is the result of a chemical action between heat, water and putrefactive or decaying vegetable matter.”

Fermenting plant material — it was believed that temperatures between 67 and 75 degrees were most conducive to creating malaria — produced “carbon dioxide.”

This gas, Johnson wrote, “turns out to be heavier than the atmosphere and sinks to Earth.” It was carried over the ground by air currents, sheltering in valleys, ravines and on the flanks of mountains. Because it’s heavier than air, it couldn’t cross water, a quality “clearly demonstrated” by the way sailors were only affected by it after their ships entered malaria-stricken ports.

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

But even if you did, some doctors would still have been wrong. In September 1881, the Washington Critic newspaper published a short article about a doctor’s tip that the best cure for malaria was a mosquito bite.

“This is a bit surprising to the novice,” the paper noted, “but the theory is based, at least he claims, that the two always go together, and that where malaria is common, mosquitoes are approximately quantities, and that the venom of their sting is nature’s antidote to the venom of malaria.”

You wonder how many Washingtonians have followed his advice.

Karen Mastersonan assistant professor of journalism at the University of Richmond, said, “They were the product of their time. Doctors, 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 “The Malaria Project: The US Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure.” Ultimately, she said, it was study doctors who found out.

In 1899, The Post had an 11-line letter with the headline “Malaria Mosquito Found.” Working in India and West Africa, Ronald Ross, a British specialist in tropical diseases, had proved that malaria was spread by the mosquito. In 1902 he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Masterson said we shouldn’t judge those DC doctors of the 1880s too harshly.

“You see what you want to believe,” she said. “You’re stuck with ingrained ideas.”