By Peter Coates (co-investigator, University of Bristol)
The particular (and peculiar) paths down which our research takes us are often unpredictable. I experienced one of these moments of serendipity at our project team meeting in Greenwich last autumn. Project partner Jolyon Medlock, mosquito expert and Medical Entomologist with Public Health England, had brought along various textual artefacts. Among the items he spread out on a table were a poster about ‘The Mosquito Nuisance’ (with tips on how to ‘kill the wrigglers’); a list of ‘the known British mosquitoes’; a pamphlet entitled Principles and Practice of Mosquito Control; a circular on ‘the destruction of mosquito larvae in salt or brackish water’; and a photo of a man in dark glasses and a tweed jacket and waistcoat who looked like one of the more suspicious characters in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
This was my introduction to the British Mosquito Control Institute (est. 1925), to its predecessor, Hayling Mosquito Control (1920), and to the independently wealthy amateur scientist, John Frederick Marshall, who founded, directed – and substantially funded - both organizations (whose premises were built within his 6-acre ‘Seacourt’ estate).
Scanning Jolyon’s materials during a refreshments break, I quickly discovered that the flourishing coastal resort of Hayling Island, near Portsmouth, Hampshire, was allegedly ‘tormented’ by an upsurge in indigenous mosquito numbers shortly after the First World War. After visiting Hayling Island, no lesser personage than Sir Ronald Ross (recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine in 1902 for identifying the transmission link between malaria and the mosquito) reported that he’d been plagued by more mosquitoes there than when he’d been in the West Indies.
As mentioned, Marshall was a wealthy man – his grandfather was a founder of the swish London department store, Marshall & Snelgrove (which became Debenhams in the early 1970s). Having built a grand villa within his capacious seafront estate, he was outraged by what he regarded as this blood-thirsty flying ‘menace’ that had infiltrated his Eden. Like fellow Hayling Islanders, he saw no possibility of co-existence. Either he or the anthropophagic (people-biting) mosquitoes had to go. It was a stand-off. And he wasn’t going to back down.
Stung by curiosity, I identified three promising collections of archival materials, two of them in central London: a file in the Archives of the Wellcome Library History of Medicine Collection within the papers of Sir Ronald Ross (a member of the British Mosquito Institute’s Council); Marshall’s papers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Library and Archive Services; and a file (fairly thin by comparison) at the Portsmouth History Centre. The European Mosquito Bulletin (now the Journal of the European Mosquito Control Association) had published a fact-filled but short and essentially descriptive and non-contextualized account of Marshall and his Institute’s accomplishments in 2004. Otherwise, it appeared that the vigorous exploits of native mosquitoes in southern England during the 20th century’s first few decades and the public and scientific response they precipitated represented a genuine gap in historical scholarship. So, over the winter, I went in pursuit of the historical mosquito in these various indoor habitats.
At the front of the file in the Wellcome archive is an explanatory note by Mike Service, a retired professor from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who’d donated the material in 2003. I’d been wondering why Marshall took such a keen interest in mosquitoes and dedicated so much of his later life to their study and control, and Service obligingly provided an explanation. Because ‘when his guests were playing on the tennis court of his Hayling Island home and afterwards eating cucumber sandwiches on the lawn they were bitten by mosquitoes’. Outdoor sports and genteel garden parties on Hayling Island were not the only activities they were accused of ruining. Marshall’s unpleasant encounter was just one instance of how ‘more intimate’ contact with mosquitoes along the length of England’s south coast in the 1920s resulted from the growing popularity of seaside vacations (a trend facilitated by the spread of motor transport), combined with a more ‘open-air’ and active recreational life pursued in ‘modern clothing’ that exposed greater areas of flesh. (Some mosquito control advocates suspected that local authorities in resorts like Weymouth, Dorset, were reluctant to acknowledge the existence of a mosquito ‘problem’ for fear of putting off visitors.)
Human modification of the natural environment also played into the hands of a ‘foe’ that was relatively innocuous individually but mighty collectively. Proliferation of golf courses with their designed water features provided additional breeding sites, as did the mushrooming of camping sites, with their open latrines and litter-like empty tins and broken bottles that collected and retained rainwater.
Fuelled by Marshall’s money and zeal, a full scale, multi-pronged assault was launched on the larvae and marshy saltwater breeding grounds of the culprit, Aedes detritus. Even local schoolboys were mobilized. By 1924, through a combination of habitat ‘abolition’ and various ‘larvicide’ treatments (such as pouring paraffin on garden ponds and in streams) it was, by general consensus, an unambiguous case of mission accomplished. Hayling Islanders could once again enjoy their gardens undisturbed on summer evenings and tourists could sea bathe in comfort.
Finding a thick wad of newspaper clippings can make the historian’s day in the archive. For these yellowing snippets curling up at the corners provide gloriously painless access to relevant articles in local and regional newspapers, which, unlike their national counterparts, are rarely digitized. Some poorly paid clerk wielding a pair of scissors back in the 1920s has saved you the tedious (even mind-numbing) task of trawling through microfilm or microfiche in the often futile hope of alighting on something pertinent. Press coverage of the ‘mosquito menace’ and the Hayling Island-based crusade to purge the ‘scourge’ of British coastal wetlands illuminates wider early 20th-century societal attitudes to mosquitoes, domestic and foreign. The take home message from a century ago is loud and whining: though they are rarely a mortal threat, do not underestimate or ignore the substantial nuisance value (disservice?) of certain British mosquitoes - nor should you resign yourself to its unavoidable presence. ‘It is a great mistake’, Marshall warned in the Daily Express (28 August 1920), ‘to suppose that English mosquitoes are harmless’. It’s also an error, I might add from the standpoint of an environmental historian writing nearly a hundred years later, to assume that tiny (mindless?) creatures in pursuit of a bloodmeal are not a co-creative force in the shaping of human affairs, and deserving of our respect, if not our affection.