Malaria – How Mosquitos Stung Mankind for Millennia

On today´s World Malaria Day by the WHO, I want to give you an overview on the role of malaria in the history of medicine.

The struggle with the disease malaria, which is caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the bite of female mosquitos, dates back to Neolithic times (around 10,000 years ago).

Archeologic findings, like the mummy of Tutankhamun (c. 1342 – c. 1325 BC) and written sources document that struggle. References on malaria can be found in the following ancient sources:

  • The Egyptian Eber´s Papyrus
  • The Indian Ayurveda called it the “Queen of Disease”
  • The Old Testament
  • The Chinese Huangdi Neijing
  • The Ancient Greece: Homer´s “The Illiad“, the works of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles and Herodot
  • The Ancient Roman Res Rustica by Marcus Terrentius Varro, De Medicinia by Celsus and De Materia Medica by Dioscorides

The name malaria …
comes from the Medieval Italian “mal aria”, which means “bad air” and is based on the miasma theory: The bad fumes in the swamp cause malaria.

The Cure

Till the 19th century mostly herbs were used to cure malaria: the most successful was from the Cinchona tree: Its bark include Quinine and was traditionally used in Peru to treat fever. Spanish Jesuit missionaries used it to treat malaria and brought it back to Europe

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek´s analysis, 1706

From the 19th century on anti-malaria drugs, like Warburg´s Tincture, were invented and in the 20th century further anti-malaria drugs, such as Chloroquine, and insecticides, like DDT, were used to fight malaria.

Malaria as cure

In the early till the middle of 20th century malaria was used to cure diseases, called “malariotherapy”: like syphilis. A malariotherapy was advised for HIV by Henry Heimlich, but was not done beside some studies in China.

The use of Hydroxychloroquin, a malaria drug, was discussed to be used against COVID-19, but proved ineffective.

Malaria´s impact on History

Malaria was among the diseases European settlers brought to the Americas in the 16th century: By doing so the Native American population was weaken and in the US Civil War both sides suffered considerable looses due to malaria.

The US Army physician William Crawford Gorgas (1854 – 1920) did a great job in preventing yellow fever and malaria by controlling the mosquitos during the building of the Panama Canal. Even though his hygiene measures were seen sceptical he saved thousands of workers and helped to succeed in building the Canal.

Gorga´s “mosquito brigade”
Source: Library of Congress

Malaria lead to a considerable amount of dead US soldiers within WWII: About 500,000 died in the South Pacific.

NS-experiments with malaria: The German Wehrmacht faced malaria in Yugoslavia, Belarus, Greece and Egypt from 1941 onwards. So Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) ordered Dr. Claus Karl Schilling (1871-1946), the German tropical medicine expert, who already experimented with malaria on humans in the Fascist Italy under Mussolini, to experiment on KZ-inmates in Dachau from 1942-1945. In his unethical experiments he infected approximately 1,200 with malaria and treated some, while the control group remained untreated: At least 30-40 died directly due to malaria but around ten times died on the consequences on their healthy by the experiments. After the war Schilling was sentenced to death in the 1st Dachau trial and hanged in 1946.
There are speculation that Himmler wanted to use malaria as bio-weapon.

Famous people who suffered from malaria

Beside the millions of unknown victims, many famous people suffered and even died on malaria. Here are a few of them:

  • Albrecht Duerer in 1520
  • Mother Teresa in 1993.
  • At least 8 US presidents – including George Washington, who even suffered from long-term consequences, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy – had the disease during their lifetime.
Duerer´s self-portrait (1520)

Based on his self-portrait (1520), where Duerer points at his spleen and adds in the inscription that it hurt him there, it was long thought that Duerer had caught malaria on his journey to the Netherlands in December 1520.
But now experts doubt his infection with malaria: Even in the 16th century Netherlands getting malaria in winter is highly unlikely.

Famous people who died from malaria

Many historic “celebrities” were not that lucky and died of malaria, often in combination with another illness. Among them were:

  • Amerigo Vespucci (1454 –1512), after whom America is named,
  • Vasco da Gama, (1460s –1524), the Portuguese explorer and first European who reached India by sea,
  • Pope Urban VII (1521 – 1590), is twelve-day papacy was the shortest in history,
  • Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658), English general and Lord Protector (1653-1658), in combination with kidney stones,
  • David Livingstone (1813-1873), the Scottish physician and explorer in Africa, who became famous for his aim to find the sources of the Nile River, (in combination with internal bleeding due to dysentery) and his wife wife Mary Moffat Livingstone.

Aiming for Eradication

The WHO aims for the eradication of malaria and it succeeded in many parts of the world including the US and Europe. Africa still suffers from malaria.

In 1943, when malaria was still existing in the US, Walt Disney made its first health-related educational short: The Winged Scourge where the 7 Dwarfs fight malaria.

Malaria and the Nobel Prize

4 Nobel Prizes of Physiology or Medicine are related to malaria:

  • 1902: Ronald Ross (1857-1932) for his discovery that malaria is caused by parasites in mosquitoes and for understanding that the Anopheles mosquito are causing malaria,
  • 1907: Alphonse Laveran (1845-1922) for his findings that the parasite entered the human´s blood and can be found there,
  • 1948: Paul Müller (1899-1965) discovered DDT and its use against malaria. Today, DDT is banned because of its environmental effects and as it is suspected to cause cancer,
  • 2015: Youyou Tu (*1930) extracted, artemisinin, which was already descripted in Ancient Chinese sources from the 4th century.

Did you know that …
Ronald Ross fall ill with malaria on the 25th April in 1896, but this is not the reason why the World Malaria Day is on the 25th April.

2 replies on “Malaria – How Mosquitos Stung Mankind for Millennia”

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