Bad Medicine

Frank McLynn

  • The Malaria Capers by Robert Desowitz
    Norton, 288 pp, £14.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 393 03013 X

Malaria has accompanied mankind on the slog through six millennia of ‘civilisation’. Hippocrates wrote about it in Ancient Greece; Alexander the Great is usually thought to have died from it (though some opt for assassination by poison) as are the Roman emperors Vespasian, Titus and Hadrian; Dea Febris, the goddess of fever, was worshipped in Rome: indeed, some historians have identified malaria as a major factor in Rome’s decline and fall. Malaria was also common in Medieval Europe until reduced by land reclamation, street lighting, ventilation and improved drainage; common in England among the fenlands and in the marshy ground of the Thames Valley, it claimed both James I and Oliver Cromwell. Theories about its origin have been legion: in the Middle Ages it was thought to be due to the action of planets and comets, to electrical storms or rains of ‘fever poison’; the Chinese thought it was caused by disharmony between Yin and Yang; while, for much of the 19th century, Victorian science was content to return to Hippocrates’s theory of an aetiology from ‘miasmata’ in swamps. Robert Desowitz recounts in some detail the discovery of the malaria pathogen transmitted to humans by the bite of the anopheline mosquito, and provides much fascinating information en route. Polynesia was malaria-free until Europeans brought the scourge in the drinking barrels of their sailing ships; the word malaria’, like ‘serendipity’, was first used by Horace Walpole, who wrote from Rome in 1740 of ‘a horrid thing that comes to Rome every summer and kills one’; dinosaurs are usually thought to have become extinct as a result of the Ice Age or the impact of a comet, but Desowitz speculates that the cause might have been kala-azar (visceral leishmaniasis), a near-relative of malaria, transmitted by the bite of the phlebotomine sandfly.

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