How Malaria Helped Shape America Itself

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by Mike Garowee

If we had to guess, most people in the United States don’t give malaria much thought — it’s just that old-timey disease that we’ve all but eradicated with modern medicine, isn’t it?

Well, not exactly. Every year, hundreds of millions of people across the world still contract malaria, and even in the U.S. there are around 1,700 cases annually. It’s basically history’s persistent jerkface. It has also, however, played some oddly strange roles in the formation of America itself. Like when ...


Malaria Helped The Colonies Win The Decisive Battle Of The Revolutionary War

Back when America was still just a bunch of British colonies, malaria was a giant problem in the South. In particular, South Carolina had perfect malarial mosquito breeding grounds, and when the insects decided to get all dangerous and bitey during the summer, the conditions could be pretty abysmal. As one person described it: “Carolina in the spring is a paradise, in the summer a hell and in the autumn a hospital.”

However, the people who survived their annual doses of malaria parasites and actually made it to adulthood had an all-important edge: Because they had already contracted malaria a bunch of times, they were a lot more resilient to the disease than, say, a bunch of uniformed Englishmen who would eventually turn up to shoot at them.

In 1779, Britain had grown tired of how long squashing this whole revolution thing was taking and decided to adopt what they called a “southern strategy.” Which basically meant: Win a few battles in the South, and encourage the local Royalists to rise up. So General Cornwallis and his 9,000 well-equipped British and Hessian soldiers started raising hell ... in the Carolinas. At first, they managed to win most of their battles, but by 1780, not so much. Malaria had wrecked them so hard that Cornwallis had to lead his men to Virginia to prevent complete ruination.



Pictured: An actual battle from the Revolutionary War.

This was a good plan. What was not is when his superiors then immediately ordered him to march back down to malaria country, set up shop, and wait for the Americans and their French allies to arrive.

Malaria can take up to a month to set in, but the British troops stayed in their positions for three. By the time the resilient American troops and less-resilient French forces entered the fray, Cornwallis estimated that half of his men were too sick to do battley things like fire a gun or not lay down all day. Of course, immediately following was the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, which you may recognize as the last major battle in the Revolutionary War, and we all know how that went.

Yellow Fever Is Indirectly Responsible For The Louisiana Purchase

OK, this one’s technically yellow fever rather than malaria, but we’ll let it slide because the diseases have enough similarities that even the CDC lumps them together. Also because we’re a comedy website and not a diagnostic clinic.

Everybody knows that Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. It was an amazing deal that doubled the size of the country at the time, gave the young nation the New Orleans port on the Mississippi River to help in trade, and gave Jefferson enough of a legacy that we put his face on a mountain and the, uh, $2 bill. Look, Jefferson, it’s mountains or respectable paper money, not necessarily both.



Don’t worry, you still did OK, Jefferson.

But why would a guy like Napoleon, who was obsessed with conquest, want to sell such a huge piece of land? The answer is he needed the money … badly. At the time, he was dealing with a little revolution of his own in Haiti. Napoleon sent a bunch of soldiers to deal with the revolution, but they immediately pulled a “British soldiers in South Carolina,” only on an even more massive scale. According to the wildest estimates, as many as 50,000 Frenchmen died of yellow fever over the duration of the conflict, and only 3,000 or so ever returned to France.

Such a vast amount of human tragedy has the side effect of also being extremely expensive. Napoleon found his money bin quickly depleting, and it didn’t help that he was about to jump face first into the War of the Third Coalition. So, when emissary James Monroe of the brand new United States knocked on his door and politely offered to buy New Orleans and West Florida for $2 million, Napoleon figured that he’d probably lose Louisiana at some point anyway and ordered his minister to go full Billy Mays on the Americans. A few parlays later, the American negotiators ended up buying the whole of Louisiana for $15 million -- a deal almost as epic as the, “Guys, you don’t believe what we just bought,” speech they presumably delivered upon their return.

It Helped America Gain Control Of The Panama Canal

In the 1880s, the French were back in the western hemisphere, trying to build a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If they could pull this off, they would control sea traffic in a critical location and make a fortune. And at the time, the general consensus seemed to be: “Hey, it worked in Egypt with the Suez Canal. How hard could it be?”

Because the project was financed by a group of private backers and speculators, it was largely a badly-surveyed, “Eh, just build it fast and on the cheap,” affair. Unsurprisingly, mistakes were made, and chief among them was the fact that disease prevention was not particularly high on the list of priorities. And because you’ve read this far, you probably know what happened next: The project was completely and utterly ravaged by both malaria and yellow fever.

Worker turnover was high, and the project, which had been marred with many technical difficulties, depleted its finances. By 1889, the partially-dug canal project was abandoned for the first time, and then another attempt was made in the 1890s which proved to be equally unsuccessful. In 1899, the French finally decided to call it quits and enter negotiations to sell the project to the United States, who had been quietly and interestedly keeping tabs on things for some time.



But seriously, get on with it already. We have things to do.

The U.S. had sort of figured out this whole malaria thing, and had a revolutionary new plan to fight the mosquitoes spreading the disease: They kept them at bay by cutting down bushes and draining the pools near the site, oiled mosquito-infested bodies of water, and dabbled in larvicides. They even helped treat and prevent the disease itself with quinine, checkups and research.

And they damn well built the canal. The U.S now controlled the travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which helped it become the global superpower it is today.

Malaria (Eventually) Helped U.S. Forces In The Pacific During World War II

During WWII, the U.S already knew how to prevent malaria with drugs. The Panama Canal had provided important insight on large-scale prevention techniques. So, disease-wise, it must have been a cakewalk for the U.S. forces fighting in the tropical jungles of the Pacific, right?


The military had grossly underestimated the need for medication, and had major difficulties getting enough quinine to the troops. Soldiers were issued Atabrine instead, which brought its own set of problems: Not only was Atabrine only partially effective, but it had a side effect of turning your skin yellow, so many soldiers simply threw the pills away.

As a result, the outcomes of actual battles were often decided by which side was suffering from malaria the most. It was devastating, with more than half of all U.S. soldiers having contracted the disease. In 1942, one particular unit had such a bad time with malaria that there were 4000 cases for every 1000 soldiers over the course of the year. That’s not a typo, by the way. On average, they were contracting freaking malaria four times a year per dude.



“Right, so it says here you should probably just take the pills anyway.”

In 1943, the Army finally said, “Screw this noise,” and just started rubbing and spraying DDT on everything to kill anything that even looked like it was carrying malaria. This didn’t do too many favors for the ecosystem, but the troops started feeling much better. From that point on, it was a call-back to the Revolutionary War: The Americans were in fighting form, while the Japanese were still succumbing to malaria at a dizzying rate that made some of their units 90 percent combat-ineffective.

Of course, malaria doesn’t get a pass because it incidentally played on America’s team in these particular scenarios. It’s a terrible disease that has possibly wiped out half of all humans ever. We guess it’s more of a case where the wind just happens to blow a wildfire in a direction that isn’t actively burning your face off. Still, it’s good to remember that the history of even the most powerful nation involves all sorts of strange players -- and in America’s case, one of the strangest just happened to be a nasty, microscopic protozoan.

Like this article? Check out “5 Magicians Who Shaped The Course Of History” and “4 Badass LGBT Women Who Helped Shape The Course Of American History”.

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