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'Throughline': The Mosquito's Impact On The Shaping Of The U.S.


With so much attention on the threat of a virus we can't see, the team at NPR's history podcast Throughline decided to take a look at another mini predator with an outsized role on human history - the mosquito. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei share a story about how the United States was shaped by a tiny insect.


RUND ABDELFATAH: We all think we know the story of the American Revolution. People were mad about taxes. The Boston Tea Party broke out. George Washington and his crew took up arms and defeated the imperial British army with unconventional tactics. And while some of that is sort of true, there's a big - or should we say small - part of this story that is rarely mentioned - mosquitoes.


RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: It's 1778, three years into the American Revolutionary War. The first half of the war was fought almost entirely in the north. George Washington and the Continental Army were having mixed success and spent a lot of energy running from the British army trying to buy more time.

TIMOTHY WINEGARD: The British are very upset that General Washington won't essentially commit to a decisive battle to end the war. And Washington knows he can't do this because he doesn't have anything. If he commits to a decisive battle and loses, the revolution is over.

ABDELFATAH: That's Dr. Timothy Winegard. He's a history professor at Colorado Mesa University and author of the book "The Mosquito: A Human History Of Our Deadliest Predator."

WINEGARD: But as long as he can keep an army, however ill-supplied and underequipped, in the field, the British have to defeat and chase this army.

ARABLOUEI: All the while, he's desperately waiting for help to come.

WINEGARD: He waits for his political lords, essentially, in the Continental Congress to get some supplies, get some allies, get some weapons and hopefully get France on board. This is essentially playing cat and mouse, and it frustrates the British.

ARABLOUEI: So they change their strategy.


ABDELFATAH: The British concentrated their forces in the southern colonies of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. Second in command of this campaign was General Charles Cornwallis, who landed in Charleston with 9,000 British soldiers.

WINEGARD: And these soldiers come primarily from northern England and Scotland, these British soldiers. So the American soldiers have been seasoned to their colonial malaria. They've had malaria. They've been seasoned to it, where these British soldiers come over, they haven't been seasoned to their own English malaria, let alone colonial stew of malaria.

ABDELFATAH: And this new set of circumstances in the South forced Cornwallis to adopt some unusual tactics.

WINEGARD: If you look at his campaign in the South in 1780, 1781, he is zigzagging all over the place. It is one of the strangest marches you've ever seen on a map. And so why is Cornwallis doing this? Is he running away from the Americans? Is he chasing the Americans? No. He's trying to find a healthy spot for his troops.

STEVE TYSON, BYLINE: (As General Charles Cornwallis) With a third of my army sick and wounded, which I was obliged to carry in wagons or on horseback, the remainder without shoes and worn down with fatigue, I thought it was time to look for some place of rest and refitment.

WINEGARD: And he says this repeatedly in his correspondences. He says the malaria is ruining my army. And he's asking British loyalists in the Southern colonies where there's a healthy spot. And because they're seasoned, they say, oh, just go that way. And then he gets there, and his troops are cut to pieces by malaria again.

TYSON: (As General Charles Cornwallis) I am now employed in disposing of the sick and wounded and in procuring supplies of all kinds to put the troops into a proper state to take the field. I am likewise impatiently looking out for the expected reinforcement from Europe to enable me either to act offensively or even to maintain myself in the upper parts of the country where alone I can hope to reserve the troops from the fatal sickness which so nearly ruined the army last autumn. April 10, 1781.

ARABLOUEI: As Cornwallis was running around looking for a safe mosquito-free spot for his troops, he got an order from his superiors to retreat and fortify at the port of Yorktown in Virginia.

WINEGARD: Yorktown is a little hamlet situated in the tidewater estuaries between the James and York rivers. Essentially, it's rice paddies. It's marsh land. So he holes up in Yorktown, and the French Navy comes. They're eventually joined by General Washington and the Americans. And they ensnare the British in Yorktown. This is in August, which is prime mosquito time in prime mosquito country in these marshlands surrounding Yorktown.

ARABLOUEI: His army was decimated. And in October, General Cornwallis surrendered.

TYSON: (As General Charles Cornwallis) I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to give up the post and to surrender the troops under my command. The troops being much weakened by sickness, as well as by the fire of the besieges.

ARABLOUEI: In his correspondences, Cornwallis lays some of the blame for his surrender on malaria.

WINEGARD: He's like, I don't have anybody who can even stand up to fight. He only has 35% of his troops roughly who are able to even stand up.

TYSON: (As General Charles Cornwallis) Our force diminished daily by sickness to little more than 3,200 rank and file fit for duty.

WINEGARD: The rest are either sick, dead or dying of malaria.

ARABLOUEI: The siege of Yorktown was the final battle in the war between the colonies and Great Britain, opening the path for the formation of the United States.

WINEGARD: So in a way, the anopheles mosquito is the founding mother of the United States. And she deserves to have her nice proboscis face tucked in between Washington and Jefferson on Mount Rushmore.


ABDELFATAH: Our founding mother, the mosquito, looms large over the history of humanity. And her reign is not limited to our past. She may completely transform our future.


MARTIN: That was Dr. Tim Winegard talking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear the whole episode by finding the Throughline podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
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