The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the 1880s, D.C.’s doctors argued about malaria and its cause

An 1878 trademark registration for Miasmine, a doubtless ineffective anti-malaria medicine. Until about 1900, scientists were not sure what caused malaria. In the 19th century, the District of Columbia had a reputation as a malaria hot spot, irritating many doctors who practiced here. (Library of Congress)

In the fall of 1881, some of Washington’s doctors decided they’d had enough. The city in which they practiced medicine was being routinely maligned as a literal hotbed of a debilitating, and occasionally deadly, disease.

As a Nov. 9, 1881, story in The Washington Post put it: “Washington has a scapegoat upon whose back is placed the burden of all undefinable and unpreventable ills. It is called malaria.”

The article had a headline we’d recognize today as clickbait: “Is Malaria a Myth?” According to the story, newspapers around the country were leading their readers to believe that “there hangs over Washington a dreaded monster whose poisonous wings are outstretched above the city, shedding death and destruction.”

And so some physicians began pushing back. The Medical Association of the District adopted a resolution to poll its members and ask them about malaria. “It is apparent that this view of the unhealthfulness of our city is gaining ground abroad and that great injury is thereby done to its material prosperity,” said the resolution.

It was true that Washington had a bad reputation, malarially speaking. A Philadelphia writer had noted the city’s “miasmatic troubles” caused by “disgusting accumulations” along the banks of the Potomac. So common was malaria, the writer joked, that congressmen trotted out the ailment as a convenient excuse for everything from being late to meetings to suffering hangovers.

A Post reporter contacted local doctors to ask about their experiences with malaria — or “so-called malaria,” as some observers referred to it. Some said malaria was a thing. Others that it wasn’t. One, a Dr. Hagner, said malaria was present in the city but overestimated.

“I have only some four or five cases of malarial fever, and these are on E street on the river front and in the vicinity of Rawlins Square,” he told The Post.

Hagner said it was imprudent to sit outdoors with an uncovered head after nightfall in late summer and early fall. “Nothing will bring on malarial fever as quickly as this,” he said.

Also dangerous: walking in the sun or “sleeping in such a position that the night air blows on you.”

As people sought to determine the cause, 130 Washingtonians died of malarial fever in 1881.

Newspapers were full of ads for anti-malarial patent medicines. The maker of Hostetter’s Bitters crowed that its product was popular in the tropics, “where the torrid heat exhales from dank, decaying vegetation the air-poison from which produced the worst forms of fever and ague and bilious remittent.”

Air-poison? Decaying vegetation? What gives?

In December 1881, The Post published a lengthy letter from a local doctor named J.B. Johnson. Johnson recounted the history of malaria — the name, he pointed out, came from the Italian words for “bad air” — and was unequivocable in its cause: “Malaria is the result of chemical action between heat, water and decayed or decaying vegetable matter.”

Fermenting vegetable matter — it was believed a temperature of between 67 and 75 degrees was most conducive to creating malaria — generated “carbonic acid gas.”

This gas, Johnson wrote, “is found to be heavier than the atmosphere and sinks down to the earth.” It was carried along the ground by currents of air, lodging in valleys, ravines and on the sides of mountains. Being heavier than air, it couldn’t cross water, a quality “clearly demonstrated” by the way sailors were affected by it only after their ships entered malaria-stricken harbors.

Reading the 1880s coverage of malaria makes you want to hop in a time machine, grab a doctor by the lapels of his white coat and scream, “It’s the mosquitoes, you idiots!”

But even if you did, some physicians still would have gotten it wrong. In September 1881, the Washington Critic newspaper carried a brief article on one doctor’s tip that the best cure for malaria was the bite of a mosquito.

“This is a little startling to the beginner,” the paper noted, “but the theory is based on the fact, asserted at least by him, that the two always go together, and that where malaria is very prevalent mosquitoes are about in great quantities, and that the poison of their sting is nature’s antidote to the poison of malaria.”

One wonders how many Washingtonians followed his advice.

Karen Masterson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Richmond, said, “They were the product of their time. Doctors, you know, aren’t necessarily programmed to be open-minded. Research doctors, yes, but regular doctors, not so much. They know what they know and they do what they do.”

Masterson is the author of “The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure.” In the end, she said, it was research doctors who figured it out.

In 1899, The Post carried an 11-line brief headlined “Malarial Mosquito Found.” Working in India and West Africa, Ronald Ross, a British specialist in tropical diseases, had proved that malaria was disseminated by the mosquito. He would be awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1902.

Masterson said we shouldn’t judge those D.C. doctors of the 1880s too harshly.

“You see what you want to believe,” she said. “You’re wedded to ideas that are ingrained.”