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The history of malaria is riddled with misconceptions about its cause

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In the fall of 1881, some doctors in Washington decided they had had enough. The town in which they practiced medicine was regularly decried as a literal hotbed of a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

As an article in the Washington Post of November 9, 1881 put it: “Washington has a scapegoat on whose back is placed the burden of all indefinable and unpreventable evils. This is called malaria.

The article had a title that we would recognize today as a clickbait: “Is Malaria a Myth?” According to the story, newspapers across the country led their readers to believe that “there looms over Washington a dreaded monster whose venomous wings are spread over the city, wreaking death and destruction.”

And so some doctors started pushing back. The district medical association passed a resolution to poll its members and ask them about malaria. “It is obvious that this vision of the unsanitaryness of our city is gaining ground abroad and seriously harming its material prosperity,” the resolution said.

It’s true that Washington had a bad reputation in terms of malaria. A Philadelphia writer had noted the city’s “miasmatic unrest” caused by “disgusting accumulations” along the banks of the Potomac. Malaria was so common, the writer joked, that members of Congress offered the disease as a convenient excuse for everything from being late to meetings to hangovers.

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

“I only have four or five cases of malarial fever, and those are on E Street, by the river and close to Rawlins Square,” he told the Post.

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

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

As people sought to determine the cause, 130 Washingtonians died of malarial fever in 1881.

The newspapers were full of advertisements for patent medicines against malaria. The maker of Hostetter’s Bitters boasted that its product was popular in the tropics, “where the scorching heat exhales from damp, decaying vegetation whose poisonous air has produced the worst forms of fever, fever and bilious remission “.

Air poison? Rotting vegetation? Which give?

In December 1881, The Post published a long letter from a local doctor named JB Johnson. Johnson told the story of malaria – the name, he pointed out, comes from the Italian words for “bad air” – and was unequivocal as to its cause: “Malaria is the result of a chemical action between heat, water and decaying or rotting plant matter.”

Fermentation of plant matter – a temperature between 67 and 75 degrees was believed to be most conducive to the creation of malaria – generated ‘carbon dioxide’.

This gas, Johnson wrote, “turns out to be heavier than the atmosphere and sinks to earth.” It was carried along the ground by air currents, lodging in valleys, ravines and on the sides of mountains. Being heavier than air, it could not travel through water, a quality “clearly demonstrated” by the way sailors were only affected by it after their ships entered ports stricken with malaria.

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

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

“It’s a little surprising to the beginner,” notes the paper, “but the theory is based on the fact, asserted at least by him, that the two always go together, and that where malaria is very prevalent, the mosquitoes are in large quantities, and that the poison from their bite is nature’s antidote to the poison of malaria.

One wonders how many Washingtonians took his advice.

Karen Masterson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Richmond, said: “They were a product of their time. Doctors, you know, aren’t necessarily programmed to be open-minded. Medical researchers, 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”. In the end, she says, it was the medical researchers who figured it out.

In 1899, The Post published an 11-line dossier entitled “Malarial Mosquito Found”. Working in India and West Africa, Ronald RossBritish specialist in tropical diseases, proved that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes. He received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1902.

Masterson said we shouldn’t judge these 1880s DC doctors too harshly.

“You see what you want to believe,” she said. “You are married to ideas that are rooted.”

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