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Multi-Country Fellowships at 25: Fighting Malaria in the Mediterranean

This essay is Part Four in a series commemorating the 25th anniversary of CAORC's Multi-Country Research Fellowship Program.

Read Part One: Explaining Countries’ Differential Success in Combating HIV/AIDS, by Rachel Sullivan Robinson

Read Part Two: Long-Term Agricultural Sustainability in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean, by John M. Marston

Read Part Three: Incense Production in Ancient Southern Arabia, by Joy McCorriston

Read Part Five: Colonial Political Economy of Trans-Frontier Trade through Peshawar, by Shah Mahmoud Hanifi

Fighting Malaria in the Mediterranean: DDT, Health Organizations, and Environmental Imperialism

Marcus Hall, 2004-05 Fellow

Senior Lecturer, University of Zurich

My Multi-Country Research Fellowship focused on the Mediterranean’s twentieth-century experience battling mosquitoes that carry malaria and other brutal human diseases. The miracle chemical after World War II was DDT, and public health organizations doused it with abandon across islands and peninsulas to demonstrate enormous successes, but also significant drawbacks. DDT had been freshly sprayed across South Pacific war zones where generals complained that more soldiers were succumbing to mosquito diseases than enemy fire.

DDT dusting Naples

DDT dusting in Naples. Source: John Lada, Editor in Chief, Preventive Medicine in World War II (Vol. 8, U.S. Army Medical Deparment: GPO, 1976).

I wondered how the praises of DDT were sung from Cyprus to Corsica, knowing that the drawbacks of this insecticide were coming to a head with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. How would the late 1940s and 1950s reveal the complexity of this powerful remedy, and what other lessons might be learned for battling insect-borne diseases? How far did local health agencies accept advice from international organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Division? How is insect control part of the larger human project to shape and refashion the natural world to make it more livable for our own species? Initial archival work in New York and Geneva provided clues that needed to be ground-checked, and a CAORC Fellowship gave me that opportunity.

DDT transportation

Mule carrying DDT in Sardinia. Source: J. Logan, The Sardinia Project (Johns Hopkins Press, 1953).

I visited overseas research centers in Cairo (American Research Center in Egypt), Nicosia (Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute) and Rome (American Academy in Rome), looking for archival tracks of how and where DDT was administered, and what the aftermath had been. Although these research centers held only modest information regarding the modern history of insect control, they provided wonderful bases for exploring local museums, public health institutes, and government databases while providing contacts with nearby experts and historians.

I found out that malaria seemed to disappear as fast as DDT could be sprayed, with the Mediterranean being one of the earlier and more successful proving grounds in the war against winged-vectors before DDT resistance began setting in by the 1960s to halt easy progress toward global malaria eradication. Islands, as microcosms of larger ecosystems, were favorite places for demonstrating the efficacy of much more ambitious disease eradication projects. Indeed, Sardinia between 1946-1951 became a test site, organized and administered by the Rockefeller Foundation, for seeing whether the dangerous mosquito, Anopheles Labranchiae, might be completely eliminated from an island. Despite repeated spraying of hundreds of tons of DDT across this rugged island, while fending off rising skepticism from fish farmers, sheep herders and local health clinicians who claimed collateral ill effects, this mosquito was still found buzzing when the project was called to an end.

Danger above enemy destroyed

"The danger above, the enemy destroyed." Source: E.R.L.A.A.S. Files, Cagliari (Sardinia, ca. 1947), Italy.

When the spray guns finally lay silent, malaria but not mosquitoes had been eradicated from Sardinia, even if malaria victory was also claimed on nearby Corsica by applying just one-third to one-fourth as much pesticide. In the interest of health science, Sardinians and their island had been subjected to much higher concentrations of DDT than absolutely necessary for getting rid of their age-old plague, the "bad air" of mal-aria.

I have since published my findings about mosquito control in the Mediterranean, while teaching and researching environmental history at the Universities of Utah and now Zurich. My CAORC journey has allowed me to search deeper into our experience with disease agents and environmental humanities, with a recent sampling of my work questioning the inevitable evil of infectious agents: “Thinking Like a Parasite,” In Landscapes, Natures, Ecologies: Italy and the Environmental Humanities, S. Iovino, E. Cesaretti, & E. Past, eds. (Charlotte: University of Virginia Press, 2018). Another recent activity facilitated by my CAORC experience is as historian in a European Union Horizon 2020 project about insect vector control, INFRAVEC2.

It is fair to say that CAORC provided funding at a crucial and optimal moment in a research career that is still bearing fruit.

Asu Selen Özcan

Learn more about CAORC Fellowships.

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