Suckers

A poster for a US public health campaign urging precautions against malaria, circa 1920
US National Library of Medicine
A poster for a US public health campaign urging precautions against malaria, circa 1920

If Alexander the Great hadn’t died of malaria in the sumpy outskirts of Babylon, on his way westward toward Arabia and North Africa (and Gibraltar and Europe?) in 323 BCE, the Western world and its history might look much different. That’s just a mote of what you’ll learn from Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.

If the Visigoth king Alaric hadn’t succumbed to malarial fever in the autumn of 410 CE, after sacking the city of Rome but not gaining control of Italy, who knows? If the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II hadn’t croaked suddenly at age twenty-eight of the same inescapable ailment, just short of consolidating the Germanic tribes in 983, maybe Voltaire would have grown up speaking German. If Oliver Cromwell hadn’t suffered malaria (plus some compounding ailments, possibly kidney stones or typhoid fever) unto death in 1658, because he was too stubbornly Puritan to take quinine, a remedy associated with Jesuits, then what? No Stuart restoration, possibly no more British monarchy ever? And if Dante hadn’t died of what Winegard calls “malaria’s inferno fevers” in 1321, and likewise Lord Byron in 1824, the former might have lived long enough to return to Florence forgiven, while the latter might have beat the Ottomans and become king of Greece—King George Gordon I—or anyway, with the additional output of those two, The Norton Anthology of Poetry would be even longer. “The history-altering possibilities here are boundless,” Winegard muses, expressing the central idea of his book.

Those individual deaths, of Alexander and Cromwell and the many other “great men” undone by small insects, are only a sampling of the consequential what-ifs regarding mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Whole armies have been devastated, whole battles decided, whole wars and kingdoms lost, whole societies transformed, because “the mosquito,” as Winegard puts it, “has ambushed humankind with unmitigated fury since time immemorial and scratched her indelible mark on the modern world order.” Did he say “her”? Yes, he personalizes all mosquitoes with the feminine pronoun, because only the females suck blood—for protein and other nutrients necessary to their developing eggs—and therefore it’s they who spread disease. For Winegard, as for H. Rider Haggard, the daunting protagonist is She. Of course, mosquito populations don’t exist or reproduce without males too, but never mind.

Over the length of his millennia-spanning chapters, Winegard argues that the Hellenistic world, the Roman Empire’s rise and fall, the Crusades, the Mongol conquests of Genghis Khan, the European colonization of the Americas, the enslavement of Africans, the coalescence of Great Britain, the American Revolution, the formative collision between the United States and Mexico in the 1840s, the American Civil War,…


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