Mosquitoes & Spores

I’ve been thinking a lot about mosquitoes recently. I came home from a ride in early March to discover that one had bitten me just beside my temple and that seemed rather early in the year to be getting a mosquito bite. But, mainly, I’ve been reading about mosquitoes. In preparing my doctoral students for their major field readings, I was catching up with the reading  list, which included John McNeill’s Mosquito Empires. McNeill argues that malaria and yellow fever had a profound impact on preserving the dominance of the Spanish Empire; in effect, the mosquito was a chief ally of the Spanish during the mid-eighteenth century, by literally wiping out entire fleets of British invaders without a single shot being fired. “Strictly speaking,” McNeill states in his introduction, mosquito-borne diseases,

did not determine the outcome of struggles for power, but they governed the probabilities of success and failure in military expeditions and settlement schemes. It is perhaps a rude blow to the amour propre of our species to think that lowly mosquitoes and mindless viruses can shape our international affairs. But they can.

As an aside, just previously I was looking at Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts, a study of techno-politics in Egypt, which opens with the similarly provocative question: “Can Mosquitoes Speak?” The first chapter traces the malaria outbreak that ravaged Egypt in the early 1940s.

Keep in mind that there were really two invaders. In the summer of 1942, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps entered Egypt from Lybia. The key moment was the battle at El-Alamein, where between 50,000 and 70,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Meanwhile, Anopheles gambiae, a mosquito native to sub-Saharan Africa—unknown in Egypt—began descending down the Nile Valley from Sudan. This mosquito carried in its stomach a deadly form of the malaria parasite. With no local defenses or immunities, the parasite was lethal. Over the three years of the epidemic roughly 750,000 contracted malaria and between 100,000 and 200,000 died.

But there’s more to both stories than simply counting bodies (and I hope you will indulge me a little further). What allowed for the mosquito’s relative success in both the Caribbean and in Egypt was an intricate collection of environmental changes that humans (often unwittingly) set in motion.

Let’s concentrate on the Egyptian case study (Mitchell’s book might be less familiar to readers than McNeill’s, although I heartily endorse both). First, there was the damming of the Nile River. The original Aswan Dam was finished in 1902 (raised higher in 1933) and helped bring in a new era of large-scale engineering, which promised not just agricultural development and technical progress, but also for many post-colonial governments, dams represented an expression of the modern state as techno-economic power; they represented transformation and modernization on a massive scale. In India, for example, Jawaharlal Neru referred to dams as the temples of modern India. The Aswan Dam transformed the ecology of the river, by altering the distribution and timing of its flow, as well as the temperature and chemistry of the water. Further, in providing irrigation pools for mosquito larvae and in creating conditions that allowed for the invasion of aggressive plant species—such as pondweed—clumps of which the river’s current carried downstream, transporting mosquito larvae from one breeding area to the next much faster than the mosquito could spread independently, malaria moved northward at an alarming rate.

Even with the Aswan Dam, Egyptians were heavily dependent on fertilizers, especially ammonium nitrate, which came from Germany… until the war’s outbreak. Ammonium nitrate was also essential in explosives manufacturing, and the war both diverted resources for Germany’s war effort (strategically, the Germans likely saw little merit in selling military materiel to the enemy). A lack of fertilizer led to a depletion in Egypt’s wheat crop. Wheat and other crops dropped by 25%. With the population in many regions already weakened by famine and malnutrition, the number of people who succumbed to malaria climbed rapidly.

The war itself also—obviously—played an important role in both malaria’s spread and the death rates. Concentrating on the human invader, British authorities in Egypt downplayed the malaria epidemic, hoping to contain it. But their half-hearted efforts helped the gambiae mosquito to advance. And failure to treat it only compounded the problem. Mind you, this wasn’t strictly a British failing. Half a world away, the Japanese had cut off Java, resulting in a global quinine shortage. The war also expedited the movement of mosquitoes. The mosquito only has a range of two miles; to reach Egypt, it needed vectors of its own. The dam helped, but the Germans already had control of the Mediterranean Sea, so the British supply route to Egypt consisted of reaching Cairo by plane from West Africa and Sudan; it’s entirely conceivable that Anopheles gambiae hitched a ride on the British supply train, enabling its successful spread throughout Egypt.

The above is a light and simple thumbnail sketch of the causes for malaria’s spread throughout Egypt in the 1940s. Many other factors contributed and the story is much more complicated, but McNeill and Mitchell offer an interesting entry into environmental history. Malaria, for example, spreads using mosquito as a vector. But the relationship requires the input of several human and nonhuman actors. As the two examples above suggest, a series of human and nonhuman environmental changes coincided to spread malaria.

This has parallel interests to another project I’m spitballing at the moment. Not quite the same, but I’m developing a growing interest in fungi and their impact on modern agriculture. I submit that fungi constitute one of the most overlooked-but-critical features of environmental history in the modern era. Akin to the mosquito discussion above, fungi have benefited from the technological innovations and economic imperatives of the modern era; their spread and the efforts to control them have had a transformative effect on the modern world.

Where does an interest in fungi come from? My work on mercury is focusing primarily on responses to the discovery of mercury in the physical environment (and the concomitant health crises that erupted); the obvious question I’ve been asked a few times—and which falls outside the scope of project—is where did the mercury come from in the first place? One of those sources is mercury-based fungicides and their place in the industrialization of agriculture at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In response to a recent call for papers, I submitted a proposal for a rather intriguing edited volume on agriculture and the life sciences (my paper was accepted, and I have to supply a clean draft in January 2013). Adopting the working title “From the New Botany to Chemical Control: Mycology, Fungicides, and Environment in Scientific Agriculture, 1885-1915,” I want to explore the crossroads at which fungi, science, agriculture, and environment meet. Here’s what I wrote:

Nature abhors a monoculture almost as much as it abhors a vacuum. In response to single crop farming practices—the template of colonial and industrial agriculture—nature has responded by increasing the conditions for crops’ susceptibility to pathogens. In this capacity, fungi have played a pivotal role in shaping the modern world. And while an array of rusts, smuts, blights, blasts, and bunts are recognized as prominent agents in transforming agricultural fortunes on regional and even global scales, the history of mycology and its place in a larger history of agricultural science is frequently overlooked.

This paper examines the global exchange between mycologists, plant pathologists, chemists, agricultural engineers, and industry in the discovery, laboratory and field testing, and commercial application of chemicals designed to stem the tide of fungal epidemics in food and cash crops in the thirty years straddling the turn of the last century. Influenced, certainly, by the aftermath of the 1840s potato blight and subsequent outbreaks of fungal disease among colonial plantation cash crops, it traces developments in mycological understanding (and importance) and overlays a concomitant expansion of chemical fungicides, from early sulphur and copper mixtures to the industrial production of organo-mercurials just before World War I. It engages these narrative threads by asking the deceptively simple question: what did scientists and farmers learn and what were they seeking to learn? In so doing the paper works to identify the relationship and tensions between the new botany, which clearly promoted mycology as a professional discipline; the chemistry that evolved to arrest fungal outbreaks in fields and plantations all over the world; and the market that stressed the sanctity of western agricultural practices (monoculturing) in the face of nature’s warnings.

Already, I’m conscious of the impossibility of the task I have set out for myself. This is likely a large book project, not a simple article-length piece. But I’m especially intrigued in the relationship between the development of mycological knowledge during the 19th century—and influenced by the new botany—and the rise of chemical control of fungi, and I welcome the opportunity to dip into something a little different. There seem to be competing narratives between the development of biological knowledge on the one hand and chemical knowledge on the other. And how one of these narratives stresses faith in human ingenuity and its capacity to control nature and defy its preordained limits, while the other suggests a more tentative relationship with the physical environment.

As blog posts go, this one is rather incomplete or unsatisfactory. It needs further discussion—and substantiation—of the relationship between mosquitoes and spores as themes in environmental history. I aim to develop this further over the next few months.

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