Long before Thanos snapped his fingers in Avengers: Infinity War, another villain successfully killed half of humanity.

Malaria is a simple parasite, transmitted by a mosquito bite. But this deadly disease, which has been around as long as homo sapiens, has killed more than all wars and natural disasters combined. It has wiped out cities, destroyed empires, ruined colonies, and may be responsible for 50 billion deaths, among them Alexander the Great and Marcus Aurelius (allegedly).

Malaria’s role in history is perhaps more under-appreciated than anything else. Here’s two examples: Many historians believe America won the Revolutionary War due to malaria depleting the ranks of British soldiers. Second, some think it caused Rome’s downfall.

When the malaria parasite was discovered in the 1800s it led to containment efforts. But the real game changer was the deployment of DDT in World War Two. Deadly swamp lands (like much of the United States) were now safe for human habitation. Even South Pacific islands were no longer death traps.

However, the fight against malaria took a different turn in the 1960s with the publication of Silent Spring, a book that argued pesticides could permanently damage earth’s ecological balance.

Malaria is not the killer it once was but it still plays a massive role in public affairs debates today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brabin, Bernard J. “Malaria’s Contribution to World War One – the Unexpected Adversary.” Malaria Journal 13 (December 16, 2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2875-13-497.
Brockway, Lucile H. “Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens.” American Ethnologist 6, no. 3 (August 1, 1979): 449–65. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.1979.6.3.02a00030.
Carson, Rachel, Linda Lear, and Edward O. Wilson. Silent Spring. Anniversary edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
Castro, Marcia Caldas de, and Burton H. Singer. “Was Malaria Present in the Amazon before the European Conquest? Available Evidence and Future Research Agenda.” Journal of Archaeological Science 32, no. 3 (March 1, 2005): 337–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2004.10.004.
Drisdelle, Rosemary. “Parasites: Tales of Humanity’s Most Unwelcome Guests: Malaria Killed Half the People Who Have Ever Lived.” Parasites (blog), April 3, 2014. http://rdparasites.blogspot.com/2014/04/malaria-killed-half-people-who-have.html.
Eschner, Kat. “Rachel Carson Wrote Silent Spring (Partly) Because of the Author of Stuart Little.” Smithsonian. Accessed August 6, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/rachel-carson-wrote-silent-spring-partly-because-author-stuart-little-180961962/.
Hemingway, Janet, and Imelda Bates. “Malaria: Past Problems and Future Prospects.” EMBO Reports 4, no. Suppl 1 (June 2003): S29–S31. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.embor.embor841.
“History of Eradication of Malaria in the USA.” Accessed August 6, 2018. http://www.malarianimby.org/history-of-eradication-of-malaria-in-the-usa/index.php.
“How Malaria Destroyed the Roman Empire – TeatroNaturale.Com.” Accessed August 6, 2018. http://www.teatronaturale.com/food-notes/miscellanea/658-how-malaria-destroyed-the-roman-empire.htm.
“How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth? – Population Reference Bureau.” Accessed August 7, 2018. https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/.
“How the Lowly Mosquito Helped America Win Independence.” Smithsonian. Accessed August 6, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-lowly-mosquito-helped-america-win-independence-180959411/.
Lee, M. R. “Plants Against Malaria. Part 1: Cinchona or the Peruvian Bark.” The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 32, no. 3 (2002): 189–96.
Miller, Mark. “Researchers Find Evidence for Deadly Malaria in Imperial Rome 2000 Years Ago.” Text. Ancient Origins. Accessed August 6, 2018. https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/researchers-find-evidence-deadly-malaria-imperial-rome-2000-years-ago-021101.
News, Marla Cone, Environmental Health. “Should DDT Be Used to Combat Malaria?” Scientific American. Accessed August 6, 2018. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ddt-use-to-combat-malaria/.
O’Sullivan, Lara, Andrew Jardine, Angus Cook, and Philip Weinstein. “Deforestation, Mosquitoes, and Ancient Rome: Lessons for Today.” BioScience 58, no. 8 (September 1, 2008): 756–60. https://doi.org/10.1641/B580812.
Offit, Paul A. “How Rachel Carson Cost Millions of People Their Lives.” The Daily Beast, February 4, 2017, sec. arts-and-culture. https://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/02/04/how-rachel-carson-cost-millions-of-people-their-lives.
Packard, Randall M. The Making of a Tropical Disease: A Short History of Malaria. JHU Press, 2010.
Prevention, CDC-Centers for Disease Control and. “CDC – Malaria – About Malaria – History,” December 19, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/malaria/about/history/index.html.
Radford, Tim. “Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – Review | Tim Radford.” The Guardian, September 30, 2011, sec. Science. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/sep/30/silent-spring-rachel-carson-review.
Sallares, Research Fellow in Biomolecular Sciences Robert, and Robert Sallares. Malaria and Rome: A History of Malaria in Ancient Italy. OUP Oxford, 2002.
———. Malaria and Rome: A History of Malaria in Ancient Italy. OUP Oxford, 2002.
Shah, Sonia. The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
Silva, Kalinga Tudor. Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Orient Blackswan, 2014.
“The Rise, Fall, Rise, and Imminent Fall of DDT.” AEI, November 5, 2007. http://www.aei.org/publication/the-rise-fall-rise-and-imminent-fall-of-ddt/.
“This May Be the Deadliest Creature on Earth.” Magazine, July 15, 2016.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/08/mosquito-disease-zika-malaria-science-eradication/.
Webb, James L. A. Humanity’s Burden: A Global History of Malaria. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
“What Is the Story About the Banned Pesticide DDT?” The Spruce. Accessed August 6, 2018. https://www.thespruce.com/what-is-ddt-history-impacts-1708897.
“When Rome Fell, the Culprits Were Climate and Disease. Sound Familiar?” Undark. Accessed August 6, 2018. https://undark.org/article/book-review-harper-fate-of-rome/.