The Giant Malaria Screen that Never Was

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Malaria may have been eradicated in the United States in the early 1950s, but throughout the previous century, the deadly disease was rampant throughout the American South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic seaboard. In fact, the mosquito-borne menace was once so prevalent in Washington, D.C. that in the late 1800s, a prominent physician petitioned for a wire mosquito net as tall as the Washington Monument to be erected over the nation's capital. At 555 feet tall when it was completed in 1884, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world at the time (it was unseated by the Eiffel Tower just five years later). A screen as high as the famous obelisk would have been quite the undertaking.

At one time, the National Mall provided the perfect breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The District of Columbia wasn’t actually built on a swamp like local legends would have you believe, but it sure looked like one throughout much of the mid-1800s. The nearby Tiber Creek, part of the Washington City Canal, would often overflow during heavy rains and flood the National Mall, producing deep puddles and giving the area the appearance—and smelliness—of a swamp.

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Dr. Albert Freeman Africanus King was one of the first to make the connection between malaria and the mosquitoes buzzing around the marshy tidal flats of the National Mall. In 1882, King gave a lecture to the Philosophical Society of Washington, in which he outlined 19 reasons why mosquitoes are the likely culprits behind the spread of malaria.

This was a contentious idea at the time. Scientists hadn’t yet shown that mosquitoes were the carrier, or vector, of the malaria parasite. Rather, the pervading theory among the medical community in the 1800s was that malaria was caused by foul vapors, or miasmas [PDF]. Malaria comes from the Italian mala aria, which translates to “bad air.” 

During this long-forgotten speech in 1882, King proposed the idea of building a colossal screen of finely woven wire to keep the nation’s capital free of mosquitoes, and thus, malaria. According to writer Leon J. Warshaw in his book Malaria: The Biography of a Killer, this proposition was met with raucous laughter from King’s intellectual audience. A truncated version of this speech was later published in the September 1883 edition of Popular Science Monthly.

Later, King elaborated on his theories about malaria. In an 1899 article appearing in the National Medical Review, King described his imagined citywide malaria screen in more detail:

With relation to the city of Washington, it was suggested that the Washington monument would afford a good opportunity (by placing illuminated fly-traps at different elevation on its exterior) for ascertaining the height at which mosquitoes fly, or are brought by the wind from the adjacent Potomac flats.

In a footnote in a 1969 article about King that appeared in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences [PDF], author Steven T. Charles speculated that King’s landmark paper on malaria did not gain the worldwide notoriety that King had hoped for and was largely overlooked.

While King's outlandish plan never gained traction, his theory about the transmission of malaria turned out to be true. But King would never be formally recognized for his ideas. It took another few decades for the notion to catch on that mosquitoes did, in fact, carry malaria. In 1902, Sir Ronald Ross won the Nobel Prize for observing the life-cycle of the malaria parasite in mosquitoes.

Additional sources: Malaria, the biography of a killer.