Nearly half of all humans who have ever lived were killed by mosquitos and the disease they spread. That’s an estimated 52 billion people killed by an insect that weighs less than eighty-eight millionths of an ounce.
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. And it’s a pretty fantastic premise for a book. Historian Timothy C. Winegard chronicles humankind’s ongoing battle against malaria, dengue, yellow fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses with unexpected enthusiasm. He comes on so strong, in fact, that it takes the first 100 pages or so to get on board. Stick with him, though, and you will catch the mosquito bug, too.
The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, illuminates how the tiny mosquito sculpted the shape of human history by influencing our diets, remapping explorers’ and conquerors’ paths and determining the outcomes of some of history’s most monumental battles. This is one of those books that will have you nodding along and saying, “No way! Really?” out loud.
Case in point: While Western medicine didn’t pinpoint mosquitos as the source of malaria until 1897, ancient Sumerians were attributing malarial fevers to Nergal, the insect-like Babalonian god of the underworld, by 3200 BCE. And Indian physician Sushruta pinpointed the connection between mosquito bites and malarial symptoms in the sixth century BCE. Lack of proof, however, meant his correct hypothesis was not accepted for thousands of years and an unfathomable number of deaths later.
History books that try to cover the entirety of human existence tend toward the dry side, leaving out the gruesome and lascivious details for the sake of expedience. Thankfully Winegard doesn’t bore us in this way. Instead, the author capitalizes on every chance to weave in gross and weird asides that have real sticking power. I probably won’t remember which forces suffered the most yellow fever deaths in the Mexican-American War, but it will be hard to forget that ancient Egyptians attempted to soothe malarial fevers by bathing in fresh human urine.
Another pet peeve with some history books is the copious and tedious footnotes I feel obligated to read but am then sorry that I did. Winegard must share this pet peeve, because his footnotes are delightful. My favorite one tags a passage about Lucy, the earliest known human ancestor.
*The famous hominin skeleton Lucy, dating from 3.2 million years ago, acquired her household name from the 1967 song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles, which played loudly on repeat the day she was discovered in the Ethiopian Awash Valley in 1974 by Donald Johanson.
The book takes on grand themes and vast eras in human history – early Christianity, the Mongol Empire, slavery in the American South, etc. – but keeps it manageable by sticking to mosquito’s eye view. For example, European exploration and colonization of Africa and the Americas would look far different without mosquitos, and Winegard tackles those topics by illustrating how mosquitos both helped and hindered European efforts to take over foreign lands. In the Americas, the malaria and yellow fever Europeans brought with them were catastrophic for native populations who had never been exposed to the diseases before and had no acquired immunity whatsoever. Those who didn’t die outright were severely weakened, making the peoples of the Americas easy prey. The scene was reversed in Africa, where few Europeans could survive the mosquito-borne diseases that African populations were somewhat better seasoned to tolerate thanks to genetic protections like the Duffy negative antigen and sickle cell. This airborne defense largely kept rapacious Europeans away from Africa until Europeans learned to harness the antimalarial power of quinine.
Winegard shows his discipline as a historian and political scientist to its best effect in the portions of the book about the mosquito’s role in determining the winners and losers of wars. The Union, for example, got a much-needed leg up with a healthy stockpile of quinine to fend off malaria, while Confederate soldiers were left defenseless by a naval blockade that kept medicine out of reach. Winegard delineates how military masterminds have used mosquitos as weapons for centuries, pushing enemy troops to low-lying, swampy areas where mosquito-vectored sickness was practically guaranteed. This winning strategy was deployed by ancient Romans, Nazis in Italy during World War II and by lots of other clever fighters in between. Toussaint Louverture, the revolutionary who lead the fight to liberate Haiti from France, was probably the most ruthless and strategic in drafting a mosquito army to his cause. He and his forces lured the French into coastal and low-lying areas, then retreated to the more salubrious hills and simply waited for malaria and yellow fever to kill off the enemy camps. It worked. “In total, of the roughly 65,000 French soldiers sent to Haiti, 55,000 died of mosquito-borne disease,” Winegard wrote.
The book is more than 400 pages long, which is tough because no matter how energetic the writing, it’s hard to stay super jazzed about mosquitos. The salve comes from the factoids, explainers and a-ha moments that will almost surely come in handy on some future trivia night. And it’s important to stick with it to the end, because the age-old war with mosquitos doesn’t appear to be ending soon. More than 830,000 people died of mosquito-borne illness in 2018, and new diseases delivered courtesy of mosquito bite are coming on to the scene. If we take for granted the cost of humankind’s bloody, deadly history with mosquitos, we might be condemned to repeat it.