In his book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, historian Timothy Winegard examines how mosquitoes have shaped human history, from the development of sickle cell disease as an evolutionary response to malaria thousands of years ago to military stratagems during World War II.
In Winegard’s view, historians tend to understate the natural world’s role in determining outcomes, focusing too heavily on human actions and the influence of powerful leaders. It’s not always great generals who win wars, explains Winegard. Disease-carrying mosquitoes are pervasive and deadly enough to have turned tides in conflicts ranging from the Peloponnesian to the American Civil War.
During the Civil War, in Winegard’s telling, malaria struck Union soldiers harder at first because they were unaccustomed to mosquito-prone landscapes in the South. However, once the Union blockaded the Confederacy and cut off its supply of resources — including the malaria treatment quinine — Confederate soldiers contracted malaria at a higher rate than Union soldiers, helping the Union chip away at the Confederacy’s strength.
Perhaps less well known is the mosquito’s role as biological weapon. Winegard describes how the Nazis reflooded the Pontine marshes in Italy to harbor malaria-spreading mosquitoes. In an interview with Smithsonian, Winegard says that his wife’s grandfather actually contracted malaria in Anzio, Italy, as a result.
Winegard makes the case for the mosquito’s role in a wide range of other events, as horrific as the development of the African slave trade and as delightful as the invention of the gin and tonic. He concludes by addressing the future of mosquito control. Gene editing could enable us to wipe out mosquito populations, or at least stymie their ability to contract diseases. Until then, humans continue to co-exist tenuously with these powerful and destructive “pests.”