The abundant rains have left us with more than our fair share of mosquitoes this summer. Walking about the garden in the evening is spoiled now by the menacing humming of those darting little minions of the devil. The humming is more annoying than the actual sting of the mosquitoes' puncture, but I really hate the idea of an insect sitting on my bare skin and sucking my blood. At least I don't have to worry about contracting malaria, which our Arkansas ancestors knew all too well and usually called "ague."
Central and eastern Arkansas were prime mosquito habitat given the prevalence of rivers, bayous and swamps. In a cruel irony, settlers discovered that the same rich bottomlands which kept afloat the cotton economy were also plagued by the Anopheles mosquito, the host of a microscopic parasite -- a protozoa that causes malaria.
At first settlers in Arkansas did not know that malaria was spread by mosquitoes. In 1849 one newly arrived immigrant to Jackson County wrote glibly about the hordes of mosquitoes: "The musketoes are plenty enough to keep a lazy man employed when he has nothing else to do."
A 19th century resident of eastern Arkansas might install a "mosquito bar," a mesh-covered frame that fitted over a bed. While usually effective, the bar also prevented the circulation of air. Here's how one Prussian visitor described his futile efforts to find sleep within a mosquito bar-covered bed at Napoleon, Ark., on the Mississippi River in June 1853. "You seek your bed expecting that the mosquito curtains will afford you protection from this plague of the country, having opened doors and windows that the cool night air may blow through the room." He continued: "But, alas, there is a drawback to the advantage of the mosquito net -- while it keeps off the hungry blood-sucker, it also prevents the refreshing breeze from reaching the weary wayfayer [sic]; he rolls uneasily from side to side in the close heated space, but perhaps drops at last into a half doze."
Malaria was so common in eastern Arkansas that it was sometimes called "the Arkansaw chills." Outbreaks of malarial chills were especially common in late summer, the "sickly season," as it was often called in old letters. Victims, their skin yellowed by the jaundice of malaria, suffered alternate spells of chills and fevers. For cycles of three days, sufferers found it impossible to work due to the debilitating fevers and chills.
The Rev. Jacob Hitchcock, who came to Arkansas in the summer of 1820 with a party of missionaries to establish Dwight Mission among the Cherokee Indians near modern Russellville, recorded in his diary that every member of the party had "ague and fever," and that the Rev. Cephas Washburn's "agues are very hard."
During his visit to Arkansas in 1838, German adventurer and writer Friedrich Gerstaeker contracted malaria, and he penned a graphic description of his first fever: "...suddenly, and despite the hot sun, a strange shivering came over me. This was followed by headache and a general feeling of severe illness. My lips and nails turned blue." For three days he was unable to leave his bed.
While mothers in early Arkansas had to watch their children suffer through a wide variety of diseases, the recurring nature of the suffering from malaria must have been especially difficult to watch. Catherine Duval Rector of Fort Smith confided to her diary on March 14, 1851, that her young son, Jimmy, was "very sick again this morning." The doctor prescribed quinine, the standard treatment for malaria symptoms. "Poor little fellow, how I hate to give him medicine, he begs so hard, 'no mama, no no,'" Mrs. Rector wrote. Two days later she recorded another attack: "Jimmy was very sick this morning... I think he had a very hot fever nearly all day."
Mrs. Rector concluded her diary entry for that day with a wry statement: "What a strange disease the chills are, one hour apparently at the point of death and the next well."
Historians estimate that more than 1.1 million cases of malaria were contracted during the Civil War, which is one reason more soldiers died from disease than during action. So many Union soldiers came down with malaria during Gen. Frederick Steele's August 1863 march through the Arkansas Delta that he had to set up a hospital at Clarendon to house soldiers suffering from what they called "the Clarendon shakes."
Henry Morton Stanley, who lived a short time at Cypress Bend, south of Pine Bluff, before heading off to Africa to find Dr. Livingston, came down with malaria within a week of commencing a job as a store clerk.
Within a few days "the frequency of ague attacks had reduced me to skin and bone (95 pounds). It was a strange disease, preceded by a violent shaking, and a congealed feeling as though the blood was suddenly iced, during which I had to be half-smothered in blankets, and surrounded by hot-water bottles." Stanley continued: "After a couple of hours shivering, a hot fit followed, accompanied by delirium, which, after the twelfth hour, was relieved by exhausting perspiration." Stanley concluded "such was my experience of the agues of the Arkansas swampland; and, during the few months I remained at Cypress Bend, I suffered from them three times a month."
Quinine was readily available throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century in Arkansas. "Chill tonics," containing quinine and other additives such as alcohol, were sold everywhere. Often the tonics claimed to be tasteless, but apparently that was far from the truth. And perhaps they had other side effects. In 1916 Gov. George W. Hays pardoned a prisoner who claimed in a petition that he had "committed a theft after taking an overdose of chill tonic."
Remarkably, in 1882, a physician at Walnut Ridge in northeast Arkansas, Dr. Zaphney Orto, conducted studies of mosquitoes which established a connection between mosquitoes and malaria. In 1916 the U.S. Public Health Service and the Rockefeller Foundation conducted a mosquito eradication program in Crossett, a lumber town in Ashley County. A 72 percent decrease in malaria cases resulted, and the Crossett experiment became a model for other eradication efforts.
Kenneth Bridges in his entry on malaria in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture has noted that as late as the mid-1940s, "Arkansas doctors still reported more than 2,000 new cases annually, though greatly reduced from earlier levels." Following World War II the federal government began funding consistent mosquito eradication programs -- which resulted in the spraying of DDT pesticide around homes and even entire neighborhoods.
Malaria has essentially been eliminated in Arkansas and the nation, though it is still common in some countries. Cases in Arkansas usually number two-to-eight per year -- with few, if any, of these patients contracting the disease in the U.S.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist who swats mosquitoes at his home near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com. An earlier version of this column was published June 13, 2010.
NAN Profiles on 08/18/2019
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