The Good Old Southland


Popular fiction or folkways often gloss over or ignore the diseases of the past and their impact on the people who endured them. Did you see “Master and Commander” or do you enjoy this or the other nautical novels of Patrick O’Brian? Although these are often praised for their authentic detail, they have one glaring admission—scurvy and other diseases would have meant that the crew of the ship in the novel “Master and Commander” would have had to be refreshed about three times during the voyage the book treats with, due to deaths from disease. We guess a movie/book featuring the crew of a ship staggering around with bleeding gums and then dropping dead might not provide as much sea adventure material.

Similarly, if you live in the United States, you may think malaria is something that only ever happens to brown people living far, far away and that’s always been the case. Actually, malaria was a huge problem in the US, until after World War II, when effective pesticides became widely available. Here is a great link that discusses the problem at the US epicenter of malaria activity, Arkansas.

How bad was malaria in Arkansas? Well, in 1933 the death rate was 44/100,000 people and in the 1870s it accounted for over 14% of all deaths. To put that in perspective, the death rate from HIV in the United States peaked at about 15/100,000 around 1995.

Now, if you read the article you’ll see some aside (from the historian (not biologist) who wrote it) about the eee-vils of pesticides like DDT. Of course, he can’t name them, and actually DDT is not particularly toxic unless you are an insect.

However, back in the 1960s a well-meaning journalist named Rachel Carson wrote a book in which she called attention to the fact that pesticides/insecticides where being widely used without much, or any information about any potential bad effects. She speculated that, it might be that pesticides could harm birds, for example thinning their shells, and that would be a bad thing indeed for the environment. Although numerous scientific experiences have demonstrated that DDT does NOT thin bird shells, this image for better and for worse really captured the public’s imagination, and to this day many people believe it is an actual scientific fact. We say for better, because it really isn’t a good thing to be spraying chemicals all over the place without knowing what the long term effects are. We say for worse, because it led to an overreaction against DDT and other such chemicals, and they stopped being used even in sensible ways, and many insect borne diseases have been making a comeback.

And if you live in the US and you’ve been feeling smug because you think mosquito borne diseases are something that happen to third world people who are too populous anyway, just remember how things used to be in Arkansas

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