On Air
Open In Popup
MPR News

How the mosquito created Great Britian, toppled the Roman Empire and continues to threaten humankind

Share story

A closeup of what we'll all be experiencing in a couple months. (Thinkstock image)
Dunbar, Elizabeth

Here’s a startling statistic: an estimated half of the roughly 100 billion people who have ever lived have been killed by the mosquito. Or, rather, the diseases they transmit. In causing such wide-spread destruction, the mosquito has been a main character on the world stage throughout history. In his new book, The Mosquito: A human history of our deadliest predator, Tim Winegard shows just how important the mosquitoes were and will be to human civilization. He spoke with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer. 

What are some of the biggest historical events you think could have turned out differently if not for these little bloodsuckers?

Certainly the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The American Revolution is another one. The American Civil War. Across our existence, she's pierced our history. There's quite a few historical examples given just the sheer death toll [caused by] this tiny animal, or I should say the diseases that she spreads. By herself, she's harmless--only the females bite. It's the numerous diseases that she vectors that cause such misery and suffering and death.

You even argue in the book that the United Kingdom was formed because of the mosquito.

Yes that was one of the more surprising things that I found throughout my research--the creation of Greater Britain, if you will, and the surrender of Scottish sovereignty to England. In the late 17th century, Scotland was coming out of a famine and then an economic recession. They weren't part of the English imperial economic system, [and] they wanted to start colonies of their own to increase their economic viability. So they hatched a plan to create a colony in Panama and upwards of 25 to 50 percent of all Scottish capital of an already cash strapped country was dumped into what they called the Darien scheme. So these boatloads of settlers and all this capital flowed into Panama, and they were absolutely cut to pieces by mosquito-borne disease. As a result, the colony floundered and failed and sunk with it was all this Scottish investment, leaving the country in massive debt in bankruptcy. So England offered to pay back the Scottish debts if Scotland would surrender its sovereignty to England and essentially be annexed by England and create a Greater Britain.

So fast forward to today--how does climate change affect the danger that mosquitoes pose to human health now?

Well mosquitoes are temperature-sensitive; they're cold blooded. So if we're seeing increased temperatures globally or in pockets around the world, the mosquito season can last longer and they can breed more generations of mosquitoes in one season. Thankfully, malaria rates are being reduced, but at the same time, what we're seeing is a re-emergence or emergence of less lethal mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile, Zika and dengue, [which] is making a huge comeback as well. In the United States, what we're seeing is these other mosquito borne diseases start to make a slow comeback. We're seeing the first domestic cases in the southern United States of Chikungunya, dengue, and Zika. So there is a concern among numerous fields of climate change affecting the span of mosquito-borne disease.

Click audio player to hear their conversation.