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Airs, waters and agues: the history of endemic malaria in England and Denmark

Airs, waters and agues: the history of endemic malaria in England and Denmark


Credit: Ilsted, Peter, Vinterionskab ved Tyreholm (Winter landscape by Tyreholm) (1899) Photo credit: National Gallery of DenmarkMalaria is argued to have claimed more lives than any other infectious disease in human history, and it remains a major cause of morbidity and mortality in many tropical areas today. Before the 20th century malaria was also endemic in marshlands of temperate zone regions including much of northern Europe. In Britain and Scandinavia the disease is reputed to have been very lethal, debilitating and depopulating marshland communities and provoking episodic crises of national importance.

The disappearance of malaria from northern Europe has generally been attributed to widespread drainage of wetlands and the loss of habitat for mosquito vectors. However climate change is predicted to extend the range and abundance of mosquito vectors and has raised the prospect that malaria will become re-established as an endemic disease in Europe. Climate mitigation projects involving wetlands restoration also raise popular concerns that malaria will return to marsh areas, fuelling local resistance to regeneration projects.

Much of the scientific and public concern regarding the growth of mosquito populations is based on a rather scant but extremely influential academic literature that emphasises the lethality and marginality of malaria-prone areas in the European past. This historical research is widely cited in popular nature and environmental writing as well as wetlands conservation and museum literature and sustains a potent representation of wetlands as embodying an intrinsic environmental risk to human health. This project seeks to interrogate these claims through a rigorous evaluation of the historical impact of malaria in England and Denmark and a critical exploration of the historical construction of wetlands as lethal malarial habitats.

Range of Anopheles maculipennis (complex), putative historical vector of endemic malaria in northern Europe, March 2022. ECOC, (c) Eurographics, UNFAOTo understand the cultural and demographic importance of endemic malaria in England and Denmark we will

  • Establish the geographical extent of low-lying wetlands before modern drainage programmes in order to establish areas at risk of malaria
  • Document the extent of drainage and reclamation between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries
  • Reconstruct often contested historical perceptions of wetland environments and malarial risk
  • Evaluate the demographic impact of malaria using epidemiological 'signatures' of malarial effects on mortality patterns in wetland and non-wetland environments
  • Test whether drainage of wetlands was associated with improvements in mortality

Our main impact-related objectives are:

  • to contribute to debates associated with contemporary climate change policies regarding wetlands, and rewetting and rewilding projects
  • to develop two online interactive atlases of historical wetlands and risk perceptions in England and Lolland-Falster
  • to engage with local communities and visitors in areas of wetland and former wetland through contributing to displays in local and regional museums and presentations of our findings and Atlases at outreach events

Map of Essex 1777, Chapman and Andre (cropped). WikiMedia Commons, CCO 1.0 license.

Banner image credits: Carr, Thomas James (1909-1999), Flooded marshes (n.d.) © The artist's estate. Photo credit: Northern Ireland Civil Service; Rowlandson, Thomas, Ague and fever (1788) © The Trustees of the British Museum; Brown, John Alfred Arnesby (1866-1955), Marshes at Bramerton, Norfolk (n.d.). © The copyright holder. Photo credit: Great Yarmouth Museums.