The following is a guest post by Stephanie A. Hall, American Folklife Center.
World Mosquito Day, August 20th, commemorates the day in 1897 when Dr. Ronald Ross of Great Britain discovered that female mosquitoes transmit malaria. Many items in the Music Division of the Library of Congress and other performing arts materials throughout the Library demonstrate the development of public awareness of mosquitoes as a threat to health.
When we think of malaria, we often think of it as a foreign problem. But it was not that long ago when it was a widespread disease east of the Rocky Mountains. My great grandfather, working as an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, then situated on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., contracted malaria in the 1870s when malaria infections in the United States were at their peak. The disease in his day was thought to be caused by bad air. People in Washington, as in many low-lying U.S. cities, often moved into the suburban hills or to the mountains during the summer if they were able.
Mosquito nets and burning incense were the earliest defenses against mosquitoes, both developed in ancient times. Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century include intimate scenes of people sleeping or lounging under mosquito nets. Portraits of women nursing babies (see image below left) under the nets may also have had an educational value. The text on the wall behind the mother and child is a phrase from a festival in which demons, called oni, are symbolically driven away. In Japan before the twentieth century, as in many cultures, disease was thought to be spread by demons. The mosquito nets became associated with protection against demons, and so this print may be seen as a visual recommendation for their use.
Folk beliefs about illness often get in the way of improving people’s health. But the folk beliefs that led people in the United States to move out of mosquito-infested low-lying areas in the summer and those that led people in Japan to use mosquito nets are examples of helpful belief behaviors. The problem was that large portions of populations in areas where mosquitoes spread disease could not afford these options.
Mosquitoes in the United States were regarded as a nuisance in the nineteenth century, rather than as the cause of diseases, and they sometimes figured in comedy. “Buz away mosquito, buz, buz!” published in 1871, is a minstrel show song with the authors’ names given as Horace (lyricist) and M. O. S. Quito (composer). The song, which would have been performed in blackface, describes the antics of animals and people annoyed by mosquitoes: “Jim Crow he went hoppity scratch. Buz away mosquito! You’re hard to match!” The Jim Crow reference is to a popular Black character in minstrel shows, originally created and portrayed by a white actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, in the 1830s. Viewed from today’s perspective, the depiction of a rural African American dodging mosquitoes in this song calls to attention to populations who were least able to escape from areas of infestation and therefore were more at risk of disease.
“Oh, that horrid mosquito,” a song by Florence Hooper Baker published in 1882, is intended to display the comical uproar caused by mosquitoes in an equitable manner, as it is written in the second person so that the victim is “you.” In case her patrons had any doubt about her message, the sheet music cover bore a quote from Josh Billings (the pen name of comic dialect writer and U.S. Congressman Henry Wheeler Shaw) “The mosketo iz born ov poor but industrious parents, but haz in his veins some ov the best blood in the country.”
Following the discovery of the role of mosquitoes in the spread of malaria, a paper published in 1881 by a Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, proposing that mosquitoes spread yellow fever seemed more plausible than it had previously. In 1900, during the Spanish American War, a United States Army research team collaborated with Dr. Finlay to devise an experiment to test his theory. Doctors Walter Reed and James Carroll allowed infected and incubated mosquitoes to bite two volunteers, one of whom was Dr. Carroll. Both subjects rapidly developed the disease, but both recovered.
The discoveries that mosquitoes spread malaria and yellow fever were not immediately embraced by the general public, but measures needed to control mosquito infestations and reduce disease required public cooperation and participation. This is a point where popular entertainment had a role in spreading an important new idea. “A monologue entitled ‘A last resort,’” by Harry L. Newton and Aaron S. Hoffman (1901) found in the Rare Book Division contains an unusually early reference to mosquitoes carrying disease. The action depicts a trip to a summer resort overwhelmed by a mosquito infestation. It includes the lines “If there were any fish in that lake, I didn’t catch any. All I could catch was malaria.…” While drawing a laugh, this joke also helped to bring information about disease-bearing mosquitoes to the attention of the audience. “Mosquito song,” by Maurice Levi and Harry B. Smith (1908), is written as if sung by the mosquitoes of New Jersey, who describe their plans for humans, including giving them “fever and chills.” The mosquitoes set their sights on New York and declare that they will “lunch on John Rockefeller’s wig.”
During the Great Depression, researchers working for the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida made field recordings of folksongs, including two songs about mosquitoes, now in the American Folklife Center’s archive. A Slovak language song, “Ked komára zenili” (The mosquito’s wedding), sung by a chorus of young people led by Rev. Stephen M. Tuhy, pastor of the Lutheran Church of Slavia, Florida, was recorded on August 31, 1939. At the wedding of mosquitoes one mosquito drinks wine and dies. This tragicomedy was a traditional song sung at weddings. A Bahamian song, “The Mosquito and the Sand Fly,” played on the melodeon and sung by Theodore “Tea Roll” Rolle, recorded in January 1940, tells of a mosquito who has a flea, which amuses the sand fly. Recorded on the last space on an instantaneous disc, the song is unfortunately cut short after one verse.
During the Depression there was a great effort to identify and document problems that led to mosquito infestations near where people lived in the lower forty-eight states. Further efforts through the mid-twentieth century made both malaria and yellow fever extremely rare in the United States. However, other illnesses, such as West Nile Virus and some forms of encephalitis are still spread by mosquitoes. Efforts to control malaria in other parts of the world continue. Japan, a country that has been producing mosquito nets for centuries, is a leader in donating nets to this cause.
For more on World Mosquito Day and a video about the fight to eradicate malaria, with archival footage of Dr. Ross, see the Malaria No More website.