Songs and Superstitions

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Topical Summary: Poets and philosophers—"Murmuring small trompets"—Pliny the Younger—Edmund Spenser—Henry David Thoreau—Fighting back—Voyageurs' grease—David Thompson—Sturgeon oil—de Smet's pious restraint—A social swarm—Merely " bad air"—Stench of a marsh—Ague among the Corps—Global warming.

Poets and Philosophers

It's a safe bet that among the very first words uttered by the earliest humans sometime between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago were angry imprecations directed at the fragile but highly adaptable miniature animals that had held dominion over most of the earth for millions of years before Homo sapiens came to be. It was the miniature creature that has for the past five hundred years, at least in the English-speaking regions of the Western Hemisphere, owned a Spanish name, the diminutive form of the noun musca, now usually spelled mosquito–"little fly"–except in England, where for centuries it has commonly been called a gnat.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, every traveler whose journey was challenging and extensive enough to justify a travel memoir could scarcely refrain from bringing up the world's most vexatious, adaptable and–as yet unsuspected by the wisest poets and philosophers–deadly little fly.

The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) claimed that there had been so many mosquitoes in the Old Kingdom of Egypt that people who lived near the Nile slept on towers to escape them at night. Experience would have taught them that the species that feed on human blood won't fly more than 25 feet above their breeding grounds. But that would have been high enough in ancient times to make them capable of disrupting battles, routing armies, and driving both wild and domestic animals to madness. In ancient Mesopotamia it was said that lions, those reputed kings of beasts, sometimes drowned themselves or scratched out their own eyes in frantic efforts to end the torment inflicted on them by hordes of the little bloodsuckers.2

"Murmuring small trompets"

There can be hardly a person on earth who has not heard the simple little tune the mosquito croons, con espressivo. Poets and philosophers have meditated on it. The early Roman naturalist Pliny the Younger (ca. 30-ca. 112 AD) complained, "Who gave the mosquito so terrifying a voice, infinitely greater than it should be in comparison to the size of its body?" The English poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), in his allegorical ode to Queen Elizabeth I, The Faerie Queene (1596), compared the rascally neighbors who tried to drive two noble, well-intentioned knights away from the castle of "the mighty Queene of Faerie," with a swarm of noxious mosquitoes:

As when a swarme of Gnats at euentide
Out of the fennes3 of Allan do arise,
Their murmuring small trompets sounden wide,
Whiles in the aire their clustring army flies,
That as a cloud doth seeme to dim the skies;
Ne man nor beast may rest, or take repast,
For their sharpe wounds, and noyous iniuries,
Till the fierce Northerne wind with blustring blast
Doth blow them quite away, and in the Ocean cast.4

Spenser also translated a rhymed stanzaic paraphrase of Culex ("The Mosquito") a story once attributed to the Greek poet Virgil (70 BC–90 BC). It tells of a shepherd who, having fallen asleep, was about to be attacked by a snake when a gnat–that is, a mosquito–wakened him by biting him on an eyelid. The shepherd killed the gnat and then dispatched the snake. On the following night the shepherd dreamed that the gnat's ghost scolded him for his ingratitude. For penance the shepherd erected a monument to his diminutive savior.5

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the American author, poet, naturalist and transcendentalist philosopher, conceived a kinder, nobler tribute to the mosquito.

Mornings bring back the heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with the door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer's requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world.6

Lewis's climactic pronouncement on the species was as close as he came to fellowship in the leagues of philosophers and poets. He compared the mosquito to the worst of the plagues Jaweh used in his war of attrition against Egypt's Pharoah.

Social Swarm

A worldwide annual springtime reunion of mosquitoes would attract 2,700 celebrants. In the U.S. alone, if only one delegate from each species showed up at their national convention, there would be 176 mosquitoes at the final banquet (77 of them from Florida). If each hungry mosquito weighed approximately 2.5 milligrams, all of them together would weigh in at a total of 176 milligrams. However, after they all gorged themselves on ambrosial human blood their total weight would double to 352 milligrams.

A five-star blood meal buffet for the Culicidae would consist of fresh female humanoids ripe in their hormonal highs. If the humans had previously fed on rations of rich foods like the fatty fresh meat the Corps of Discovery relied on, their skin would be delicately redolent of acetone, which would draw the mosquitoes like flies. And if the humans, either male or female, had come straight from their health clubs without showering, their skins would be loaded with lactic acid, another mosquito attractant.

Immediately after finishing their entrees, the delegates would skip dessert, take a short nap in a safe place nearby, forego the afterdinner speaker, then fly off to the nearest puddle of water to deposit their rafts of eggs for the season. Each raft would be about the size of half a grain of rice, and yet would contain hundreds of frantically wriggling microscopic mosquitoes-in-the-rough. We're doomed. Again.

Fighting Back

In the spring of 1804 Lewis wrote to Clark from St. Louis: "I send you by Colter and Reed 200 lbs of tallow which you will be so good as to have melted with 50 lbs of hog's lard, cooled in small vessels and put into some of those small Keggs which were intended for whiskey." Then, on June 12, 1804, three weeks after heading upriver from St. Charles, the captains hailed a passing St. Louis-bound trader and bought 300 pounds of voyageurs' grease from him.7 It is possible that the lard and grease served both to add nutrition to their daily meals, and to protect them from mos-quitoes, but the first use was more important.

Meriwether Lewis and his men met a company of Shoshone warriors on 13 August 1805–the height of mosquito season in the Rockies–and remark-ed, "these men then advanced and embraced me very affectionately in their way which is by puting their left arm over you wright sholder clasping your back, while they apply their left cheek to yours and frequently vociforate the word âh-hi'-e, âh-hi'-e     that is, I am much pleased, I am much rejoiced.    bothe parties now advanced and we wer all carresed and besmeared with their grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug."

David Thompson, who was a contemporary of Lewis and Clark, made a similar observation:

Oil is the only remedy and that frequently applied; the Natives rub themselves with Sturgeon oil, which is found to be far more effective than any other oil. . . . A sailor finding swearing of no use, tried what Tar could do, and covered his face with it, but the musketoes stuck to it in such number as to blind him, and the tickling of their wings were worse than their bites; in fact Oil is the only remedy.8

Some fifty years later, the Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean de Smet (1801-1873), the founder in 1841 of the first white settlement in what is now Montana, wrote of God's vicious little creatures with about as much pious restraint as the tiny devils deserved.

And what shall I say of musquitoes? I have suffered so much from them, that I cannot leave them unnoticed. In the heart of the prairie they do not trouble the traveller, if he keep aloof from the shade, and walk in the burning sun. But at nightfall they light on him, and hang on him till morning, like leeches sucking his blood. There is no defence against their darts, but to hide under a buffalo skin, or wrap oneself up in some stuff which they cannot pierce, and run the risk of being smothered.

When green or rotten wood can be procured, they may be driven away by smoke, but in such case the traveller himself is smoked, and in spite of all he can do, his eyes are filled with tears. As soon as the smoke ceases, they return to the charge till other wood is provided and thrown on the fire, so that the traveller's sleep is frequently interrupted, which proves very annoying after the fatigue of a troublesome journey.9

Indeed, various oils and greases, mosquito biers (pron. barz), and smoke remained the standard ways to disappoint mosquitoes until citronella oil was approved as a biopesticide in 1948. It was extracted by steam distillation from tropical grasses of the genus Cymbopogon, a member of the sweetgrass family. The drawback of citronella-based repellents is their limited period of effectiveness, which ranges from only 30 minutes to a maximum of 2 hours.

"Bad Air"

As officers, Lewis and Clark were officially responsible for the health of their men, and they had enough knowledge and experience to recognize the more common ailments of that day, including "ague" and "bilious fevers." The ague was also known as intermittent fever in America, from its alternate attacks of fevers and chills. It had been termed "mal-aria"–literally "bad air"–in Italy, especially around the Pontine Marshes of Rome. The word malaria didn't enter the English and American medical vocabularies until after 1820.

Even then, no one perceived the right connection between mosquitoes and water, but only the mistaken one between marshes and their odors. As long as one couldn't smell marsh gas, it didn't appear to matter how many mosquitoes were in the air. On August 3, 1804, for instance, the captains came to a positive conclusion about the environment of the "Council Bluff" where they had met with the Otoes and Missouris. As Clark observed, even though the mosquitoes were more numerous than he had ever seen them, "perhaps no other Situation is as well Calculated for a Tradeing establishment. The air is pure and helthy So far as we can Judge."

On November 13, 1803, as he entered the upper middle stretches of the Ohio River, Lewis–possibly recalling his Army days–noted that those afflictions "here commence their baneful oppression and continue through the whole course of the river with increasing violence as you approach it's mouth." Indeed, the zone of intermittent fever extended some distance up the lower Missouri, and down the Mississippi to the Gulf.

Four days later he reported a mild attack of the disease himself. He experienced "a violent ague [chill] which continued about four hours and as is usual was succeeded by a feever which however fortunately abated in some measure by sunrise the next morning." On July 7, 1805, Lewis reported that York was showing symptoms of "intermittent fever."

Capt. Clarks black man York is very unwell today and he gave him a doze of tartar emettic which operated very well and he was much better in the evening.     this is a discription [prescription] of medecine that I nevr have recourse to in my practice except in cases of the intermittent fever.

Sergeant Gass had an attack of chills on the night of October 9, 1805. He complained of having had "a fit of the ague," and felt too weak the following day even to steer his canoe. He didn't mention any alternating feverish spells, so the chills may have been symptoms of some other ailment. But if he really was suffering from malaria, it may have been a chronic form of the disease that he had contracted before he joined the expedition.

Since the middle of the 20th century, malaria has been nonexistent in North America above the Mexican border.

Yellow fever, caused by a flavivirus ("yellow virus") carried by Aedes aegypti, is believed to have originated in the savannas of Africa and the tropical Americas. It became a major scourge in North America beginning with the epidemic that struck the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1647. The yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which claimed 5,000 lives in Philadelphia alone, is still considered one of the severest medical disasters in American history.10 The flavivirus was first identified in 1928, and a vaccine was produced in 1937, but no cases of yellow fever have been reported in the U.S. since 1905.11

The only mosquito-borne viruses recorded in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth century are several varieties of equine encephalitis, which was first isolated in 1933, and West Nile virus (WNV), first identified in 1937. Equine encephalitis occurs naturally in a great number of wild song birds, and is transmitted by mosquitoes–chiefly Culex pipiens –among birds and horses as well as humans. It is fatal to both horses and humans, but whereas it is a serious threat to livestock, fewer than a handful of human cases are recorded annually.

The first outbreak of West Nile virus in the Western hemisphere occurred in New York City in 1999. There is as yet no vaccine for it, nor even any specific treatment. Within the first nine months of 2002, 269 people were diagnosed with WNV in the U.S., and thirteen died from it.12 Satellite imagery has been employed to map the geographical regions most favorable to the mosquitoes that are vectors of WNV. Mosquito habitat distribution maps may be found in the NASA News Archive.

Today, in tropical regions such as East Africa, hundreds of people still die of malaria every day. Preventive methods consist mainly in the distribution of mosquito nettting to protect sleepers from female Anopheles. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, people who live in temperate zones have been free of the scourge of malaria, but many scientists believe that with the onset of global warming, the eventual return of the Anopheles mosquitoes to the middle latitudes carrying protozoan parasites that cause malaria, is a distinct possibility.13

1. Owen's Dictionary, s.v. Culex.

2. Leland O. Howard, Harrison G. Dyar, and Frederick Knab, The Mosquitoes of North and Central America and the West Indies, 4 vols. in 3 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1912), 1:8.

3. Fennes (fens) are marshes.

4. The Faerie Queene, from The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Edmund Spenser, Prepared by Risa Bear (London: Grosart, 1882), Book II, Canto ix, 16. HTML EText, (accessed July 14, 2008).

5. (accessed July 14, 2008).

6. Walden (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1912), 115.

7. Moulton, Journals, 2:294.

8. J. B. Tyrrell, ec., David Thompson's Narrative (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1915), 25-26.

9. Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., Letters and Sketches with a Narrative of a Year's Residence Among the Indian Tribes of the Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia: M Eathian, 1843), in Reuben Gold Thwaites, Early Western Travels, 32 vols. (1904; repr., New York: AMS Press, 1966-), 29:2599. Father Jean-Paul De Smet (1801-1873) was a Jesuit missionary who founded St. Mary's Mission in 1841, in the valley of the Bitterroot River–"Clark's River"–in western Montana.

10. The story of the disaster, including the role of Meriwether Lewis's tutor Dr. Benjamin Rush, is told in J. H. Powell's Bring Out Your Dead: the Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: University Pennsylvania Press, 1993)

11. Richard H. Foote and David R. Cook, Mosquitoes of Medical Importance, Agriculture Handbook No. 152, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (July 1959), xx.

12. USGS Disease Maps 2008, at (26 April 2008). Growers' Guide, Ag News, September, 2002, (accessed April 26, 2008).]

13. "Warming
Trend May Contribute to Malaria's Rise," Science Daily (March 22, 2006); (retrieved July 19, 2008).