Melody to Malady

Scientists’ recent analysis of Tutankhamen’s blood and DNA is likely to cast a pall on Egyptian tour-guides at the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. For decades they have conjured up conspiracy theories involving accident, betrayal and deceit that led to the boy-king’s untimely death at the tender age of nineteen. Unfortunately, the results released this month suggest a more mundane cause—the onset of malaria on the Pharaoh’s already weak constitution.

Although this may be the first recorded instance of malaria, it is by no means the last. Today malaria accounts for between one and three million fatalities every year, a majority of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Health and aid agencies (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started by the Washington wonder who may well be remembered by posterity for his philanthropy) have waged an incessant, but losing, battle against the humble mosquito that carries this disease.

Man’s sleeping hours are the most vulnerable for mosquito bites, and the simplest form of protection is the regular use of mosquito nets. My earliest memory of this “room within a room” is that of sheer bewilderment as one had to quickly slide into the safety of this white shroud— however, its practicality became almost immediately evident as the near-invisible gossamer layer allowed sleep to overpower the orchestral refrain of blood-thirsty mosquitoes who could be heard but not felt. Although mosquito nets are freely distributed to combat the disease in areas where it is most prevalent, poverty has often led the nylon nets to be used for other purposes like catching fish.

The word ‘malaria’ is derived from the Italian phrase for “bad air” as it was initially thought to be caused by breathing in the humid and polluted air of marshy tropical regions. The fact that malaria is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito was discovered by Sir Ronald Ross in Calcutta in 1898, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1902. This was however not the last time that malaria featured in the citation for the Nobel Prize for Medicine—the 1927 award celebrated the discovery that artificially induced malaria could cure syphilis in its advanced stages!

Amitav Ghosh’s early novel The Calcutta Chromosome is a gripping amalgam of historical facts and futuristic fiction that follows young Ronald Ross, a directionless officer of the Indian Medical Service with ambitions of becoming a writer, as he stumbles his way to the relationship between mosquitoes and malaria. The 20th of August is today celebrated as World Mosquito Day in honour of Ross’s dissection in 1897 of a mosquito that revealed malaria parasites growing inside the insect’s tissues.

Ross continued his experiments in a small laboratory created for him within the ramparts of Calcutta’s Presidency General Hospital. Although he left in 1899, having accepted an offer from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, his one-storeyed cottage continues to be used as an outpatient centre for inoculating local residents against malaria and dengue fever. A few feet away, a brass plaque commemorates Ross’s epic discovery with immortal lines from the part-time poet’s pen: “I know this little thing, A myriad men will save. O death where is thy sting? Thy victory O grave?”


Away with a pæan of derision,
You winged blood-drop.

Can I not overtake you ?
Are you one too many for me,
Winged Victory ?
Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?

D H Lawrence, The Mosquito

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