Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Next 4th of July, Drink a Toast to Our Friends, the Mosquitoes

I know that I'm a history buff, so what excites me may not excite everyone else.  But I found another article in the Washington Post this week--and not even in the education section--that I just have to recommend to everyone.

As I wrote in one of my "The Social Network" blogs recently, I think US history, particularly about American History, is too focused on the "Great Man and Woman" approach to history.  In this article, Georgetown University History Professor J.R. McNeill suggests that we didn't win our independence at the Battle of Yorktown due to the brilliance of US General George Washington, or even from the failures of British General Charles Cornwallis, but from the assistance of our allies.  Oh, of course, the French troops, you might be thinking....but that is not what McNeill is referring to.  The Spanish? you might ask.  But no.  Our allies, that invincible force that tipped the scales to the side of the US forces for the victory were, in fact.......mosquitoes.

Of course, it was not mosquitoes, per se, that made the difference.  Rather, it was the malaria infection that the mosquitoes transmitted.  Malaria is one of the most deadly diseases in the world, injecting a parasite into the liver and blood cells that can lead to fever, headaches, hallucinations, coma, and death.  Back then, they had no idea that it was transmitted by mosquitoes, and so took no preventative measures against their attackers (other than for comfort reasons).  They also had no treatment for the disease--or, at least, no treatment that wasn't ineffective at best (eating cobwebs or spiders to tearing out one's hair) and counter-productive at worse (such as draining up to 10% of the blood supply or drinking heavy metals such as mercury).

Of course, it was not as though the mosquitoes that thrived in tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas were partial to the US side and attacked only the British.  Actually, they were pretty equinimical in terms of biting both sides.  The thing is, for most of the American troops, they had been bitten before.  Malaria was a terrible force in the American population, having killed many thousands of people, particularly  children.  But those who had been exposed to the disease and survived (usually multiple times) carried a resistance with them for life.  So while malaria took a toll on the American troops, most American soldiers had already developed some natural protection against the disease.

However, the British and German (or Hessian) troops had not been exposed to this infection.  Therefore, it ran rampant through its ranks, particularly because Cornwallis came to Yorktown after over a year in malaria-ridden South Carolina.  Actually, Cornwallis was headed towards higher, less mosquito-ridden ground when he was ordered to return to tidewater Virginia by his superior officer in New York.  By the time of the Yorktown battle, Cornwallis stated that over half of his men were too sick to serve any effective purpose in fighting the US and French troops (who had arrived only about a month earlier--not long enough for the effects of malaria to have such a dramatic effect on their numbers).

And so it was that a force that was considered to be militarily superior had to surrender to the Americans--all due to those pesky little mosquitoes.

I just love this story.  But I think it illustrates a larger issue about teaching history.  Although I didn't learn history with any environmental factors considered, I think it is critical to include environmental education in our instruction for our children.  This is only one example of the fact that we ignore the environment at our own peril.


  1. That was great! Now I know the advantage of mosquitoes! Thanks.

  2. It's a great lesson about judging things--we may not like some things, but they play a crucial role in our lives that we never know.