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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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A Revolution in the Ways We Live and Die

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 3, 2011

One night in 1877, in a squalid port city on the southeastern coast of China, a Scottish doctor named Patrick Manson performed a small experiment that would soon revolutionize the ways we live and die.  What was his subject?

1.  A dog.

2.  A mosquito.

3.  A human being.

4.  A laboratory rat.

And the answer is:

Patrick Manson performed a small experiment with mosquitoes.  The scope of the test was limited and the design badly flawed.  But it was the beginning of a spectacular quarter century in which the work of the species seekers would bear fruit, enabling humans for the first time to control diseases that had plagued them forever.  His experiment focused on elephantiasis, a common disorder in the tropics that he suspected was caused by parasitic filarial worms.

He also hypothesized that the worms were passed from one individual host to another by a blood-sucking insect. Somehow, from examining what was essentially a paste of mashed filarial-infected mosquitoes, Manson also discerned what happened next:  Newly liberated from their first host, microfilariae passed through the mosquito’s abdominal lining and took up residence in the muscles of its thoracic cavity.  There they continued to develop, “manifestly … on the road to a new human host.”

He had discovered “a new and revolutionary concept,” according to medical historian Eli Chernin–“that certain bloodsucking arthropods can transmit human disease.”     It would eventually save millions of lives—arguably, millions every year in the modern era–and immortalize Manson as “the father of modern tropical medicine.”

There’s a lot more to this story—you can read about it in The Species Seekers.


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