Until the early 20th century, the transmission of malaria was unknown. Doctors would argue about what malaria was, what caused it, and how it spread, everything was up in the air about the disease. In 1897, Sir Ronald Ross dissected the stomach tissue of an anopheline mosquito that had previously fed on a malaria patient. Ross found the malaria parasite and went on to prove to the scientific community and everyone else that mosquitoes were the real culprits for transmitting malaria. However, before this, the late 1800s were full of doctors claiming absurd things regarding malaria.
A Little More on Malaria
Today we know that malaria is a life-threatening disease spread from some types of mosquitoes to humans, specifically the infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Typically found in tropical climates due to the mosquitoes’ breeding needs, malaria is both preventable and curable. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include high fevers, chills, and a general flu-like illness. When it’s a more severe case, symptoms can include confusion and seizures. While most people may experience a mild case, if left untreated cases can turn severe and even deadly. The World Health Organization states that as of 2021, nearly half the world’s population is at risk of malaria. Knowing what we know today, we’re able to diagnose, treat, and even cure malaria. However, in the late 1800s, it was a completely different situation.
The 1880s Arguments About Malaria
During the 19th century, malaria not only affected the more populated regions in the United States, it was one of the country’s leading causes of death at the time. Malaria was so common that a Philadelphia writer joked that the “congressmen trotted out the ailment as a convenient excuse for everything from being late to meetings to suffering hangovers”. Newspapers included headlines questioning if malaria was real or just a myth. In 1881 a story ran in The Washington Post about malaria that claimed “Washington has a scapegoat upon whose back is placed the burden of all undefinable and unpreventable ills”.
When doctors were asked about their experiences with the disease, some believed it was an actual illness and others thought it was more of a myth than a real issue. One doctor, Dr. Hagner, claimed that while malaria was present in the city, cases were heavily overestimated. Physicians argued about the cause; some claimed it was bad air or even carbonic acid gas in the atmosphere. Along with this, doctors would suggest trying different treatments or cures. One doctor’s tip was published in the Washington Critic newspaper in the fall of 1881 explaining how the best cure was to get bitten by mosquitoes. Knowing what we know today it’s laughable to think that a medical practitioner would claim getting bitten by mosquitoes could cure malaria. The thought was that they found malaria in mosquitoes, so perhaps the poison of the sting could be the antidote for the disease.
All in all, while Americans were rebuilding after the U.S. Civil War, malaria ran rampant in large cities across the country. With around 10,000 deaths during the U.S. Civil War occurring because of malaria, it’s easy to see how the disease spread throughout the country and how large of an impact it had. Doctors didn’t agree on anything when it came to malaria before the 20th century. Luckily, we’ve come a long way since then. We understand the cause and transmission of malaria as well as know how to prevent and treat the disease. In the past couple of years, we’ve even seen the progress of a malaria vaccine being recommended. As research continues there could be a point in time when malaria will be eradicated from the world.
With the right tools and vaccines, you can prevent yourself from contracting a mosquito-borne illness. Make sure you are prepared with Passport Health. Call 937-306-7541 or book online to schedule your appointment today.
Written for Passport Health by Brianna Malotke. Brianna is a freelance writer and costume designer located in Illinois. She’s an avid coffee drinker and enjoys researching new topics for writing projects. Her site can be