As a child, Sarah Albee was an inveterate bee trapper, bug rescuer, and firefly catcher. She’s still enthralled with the insect world, and her latest book Bugged: How Insects Changed History (Bloomsbury, 2014) explores the intersection of science and history. What did mosquitoes have to do with the Louisiana Purchase? Lice with the Irish potato famine? And what mysterious disease plagued the Philistines? As she promises in her introduction, she tells these stories–and more–in glorious and “disgusting” detail.
So, tell us, were you one of those kids that went about lifting up stones to find pillbugs during the day, and out on summer evenings with a jar trying to catch fireflies?
I’m sorry, but did you say “trying” to catch fireflies? I caught them by the dozen. I loved bees, too–I’d capture 20 or 30 at a time in a jar with holes punched in the lid. Then I’d sit and watch them buzz around for a while the way other kids watched TV. I always let them go, and I never got stung.
I was the kid who wouldn’t leave a swimming pool until I’d rescued every bug from its watery fate. Yes–I loved insects, and snakes, and lizards, and toads, and slugs, and anything I could find under a rock. I was always, always outside.
In your introduction, you state that this is a history book but there’s loads of accessible science in it. Do you consider yourself a historian or scientist?
I’m going to paraphrase something my husband said a few years ago, when I came home from a conference to find that a new basketball backboard had been expertly installed above our garage, the rim perfectly level and precisely ten feet high.
“Did you install that?” I asked him incredulously. (He’s not the handiest guy with a hammer.)
He shrugged, buffed his nails on his shirtsleeve, and responded, “Yep. All you really need for a job like this are the right tools.” And then he added in an undertone, “ . . . and Peter Frew for a next-door neighbor.”
So my answer is that although I consider myself more of a historian, all it took to master the science bits was exhaustive research, deep thinking, and–cough–an awesome list of doctor and scientist contacts, whom I badgered with questions via Skype, email, and phone conversations.
That said, I really am fascinated by where different disciplines overlap. I love the history of science. The science behind history. The history and science behind art. Take Antoine Lavoisier, widely considered to be the father of modern chemistry. He identified oxygen and hydrogen, and more or less invented the metric system. But how many kids learn that he was guillotined in the French Revolution? Do art students who study the painter Caravaggio know that he was wanted for murder, and probably died of malaria?
The division of human knowledge and experience into separate disciplines really is an artificial construct, and a fairly modern idea. Enlightenment era thinkers considered all human knowledge seamless.
While many people might guess that the plagues that occurred beginning in the 1300s were some of the “worst” pandemics in history, what other epidemics might readers not know about that had a significant impact world history?
Most people know about bubonic plague, which is vectored by fleas, and which killed a large portion of the world’s population, first in AD 541 and again in the 14th century. But fewer people are aware that a third, major plague pandemic occurred in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and it killed millions of people, mostly in India, China, and Indonesia.
Often, epidemic diseases occur in tandem with other tragic events–like war and famine–because contagious diseases spread more easily among people who are weakened from hunger and deprivation. Epidemic typhus, vectored by the body louse, killed tens of thousands of people during the Irish potato famine. It also killed millions of people in Russia, Poland, and Romania at the end of World War I.
And then there’s our own country: the Louisiana Purchase was the direct result of Napoleon’s having lost so many soldiers to yellow fever and malaria in the Haitian uprising. In 1803 he sold the Louisiana territory to Thomas Jefferson for four cents an acre, believing much of it to be a pestilential swamp–which, actually, it was. Then Napoleon threw in a few hundred thousand additional square miles to the north for some extra cash, effectively doubling the size of the United States, and laughed his way to la banque, thinking he’d gotten by far the better deal.
We now know that King Tut probably died of a severe case of malaria, and that Charles Darwin, sometimes profiled as a hypochondriac, may have suffered from Chagas’ Disease picked up on his travels in tropical areas as the naturalist on the Beagle. Are there other stories about well-known individuals and illness that we’re now attributing to insects?
It’s always tricky to diagnose diseases that happened centuries ago, as all we have to go on are accounts written by people living at the time, and many ancient diseases don’t look exactly like their modern incarnations. So there’s often a lively debate about what might have killed famous historical figures. But strong arguments can be made that insects caused the deaths of Pericles, Alexander the Great, several Roman emperors, Alaric, King of the Visigoths, Genghis Khan, Oliver Cromwell, and a whole bunch of popes.
Of the creatures that are transmitting diseases today, is it mosquitoes and malaria that we need to be most concerned about?
Mosquitoes and malaria definitely remain a concern. Malaria is no longer a threat in this country, but with climate change, it could return. And there’s a growing concern about dengue fever, which is common in the tropics and which is staging a reappearance in the southern United States, along with the wonderfully-named but not-so-fun-if-you-contract-it chikungunya disease, also transmitted by mosquitoes.
Of course, it’s natural for people to fear what they can’t control. For instance, every year there’s a panic about West Nile virus. Sports events get cancelled, and parents are warned to keep their kids inside at dusk. While that disease can be serious, the probability of contracting West Nile in our country is still extremely low, compared to all the other dangerous things we do–like not wearing a bike helmet, or texting while driving, or eating too much junk food.
While you highlight the role of insects in spreading world-changing diseases, you begin your book by covering the importance of insects–in the food chain, etc., and end with a cautionary note on the use and overuse of pesticides. Can you comment on their use?
I have a complicated response to pesticides. Take DDT: in 1943, after a required delousing of three million civilians and soldiers in Italy, it was hailed as a miracle drug that averted an epidemic of typhus. And later it was part of an intensive campaign to eliminate malaria worldwide. And DDT really did work, for a while. But it proved to be highly damaging to the environment–and malaria has since returned to many areas.
On a personal level, I don’t use pesticides in my own garden, and try to buy organic produce whenever it’s available (and I can afford it). But I also appreciate that big-scale industrial farming and the accompanying widespread use of insecticides have enabled us to produce large quantities of food cheaply–these farms help feed the world and have staved off terrible famines.
So I’m an advocate of integrated pest management: using pesticides as judiciously and sparingly as possible in combination with time-honored methods of pest control such as crop diversity, crop rotation, and biological controls.
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