For may years the connection between mosquitoes and the parasites in the
blood of people suffering from malaria was not known. Many doctors working
in tropical countries knew that many cases of malaria occurred in areas with
large pools of stagnant water. For a while, they thought that malaria was
caused by organisms in the water. People got malaria when they drank the
water or when they ate food cooked in it. It was Ronald Ross who put the
pieces of the malaria jigsaw together.
Some people had vague ideas that
malaria and mosquitoes were somehow connected. As early as 1812 there was a
law in Sierra Leone which said that all the inhabitants would have to keep
the road and area around their houses free of stagnant water, since stagnant
water caused 'disease and mosquitoes' over the town.
The first man to link
malaria with the mosquito was Ronald Ross. He had been told the Sierra Leone
story by a friend, Dr Kennan. Ross knew that malaria was caused by a
parasite in the blood. He had even seen the parasites through his invaluable
microscope. He had injected healthy people with blood from those suffering
from malaria and these healthy people developed the symptoms of the disease.
What he could not tell was how the parasites passed from one sick person to
a healthy person in normal conditions. it was easy enough for him to do it
in the laboratory but how did it happen naturally ? The answer did not come
easily. it took years of very careful work and observation before he got the
What was admirable about Ronald Ross was that it was not the
nature of his job to study the causes of malaria. He was an Army doctor. All
he had to do was look after the sick soldiers. He was expected to prescribe
quinine to those who arrived sick in the hospital but his superiors
certainly did not expect him to seek the cause of the disease. However, Ross
saw the suffering the disease brought and worked continuously for years to
find a way to prevent the disease. Malaria was a very debilitating disease
and often fatal. Thousand s of people died or lost precious hours of work.
On a visit home from India, Ross visited Dr Patrick Manson. Manson was a
great authority on tropical diseases. Manson showed him specimens of the
various parasites in the blood of patients in the Seamen's Hospital. These
were men who had caught the diseases during voyages to the tropics but they
had not been treated until they arrived in England. Ross's meeting with
Manson only increased his desire to work on malaria.
In 1895, Ross
received a gold medal and seventy five guineas for an essay that he wrote on
malaria. He was not interested in the prize but he was very pleased to be
honored. It gave him the boost he needed to find the final solution to the
dreaded disease. He knew that he was nearer the solution than any other
medical man of his time. As soon as he got back to India, he carried on his
work on malaria.