Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

European Malaria Epidemics of 1805-12 and 1823-27

Luck, that tricky bitch, has us looking at an entry adjacent to yesterday’s. Did you get enough of European malaria yesterday? Sorry, but there’s more!

Just when you thought Sir Robert Talbor had European malaria licked, it turns out it was only down for the count.

Swamps are sickly places. So are canals. Standing water is bad news. People weren’t aware of this for some time. In the early 19th century, the people of Bordeaux (who have given us so much!) got malaria. French people digging a canal from Arles to Port-de-Bouc got malaria. People digging a canal outside Paris got malaria. It is suspected soldiers had brought malaria home from Russia or Germany.

The Arles to Port-de-Bouc canal. It doesn’t look like it could kill you, but it could, back in its day.

Even Russia was not safe, as they had a bad outbreak in western Siberia. Northern Poland had it. That was about as far north as malaria got.

Napoleon tried to help out. In 1800, he had quinine sent to 42 French cities. Still, about 3,000 people died.


Here’s Napoleon looking pretty bummed out, like, shit, why amI such an asshole? If only he’d had a good therapist.

Although European people knew the bark of the cinchona tree would help, not everyone had a cinchona tree in her backyard. And no one was sure why it worked. Or exactly how to use it. This was before Science was full grown.

The Netherlands were a malarial mess. I know, all that water. I never thought of it before, either.

When the British took a Dutch island in the North Sea, fate punished them by giving them malaria. The naval commander for this expedition, Sir Richard Statham, was nicknamed “Mad Dick.” Apparently he was “wild,” “irregular,” and not “steady.”

I wanted to share that with you.

The Brits had 40,000 troops ready to launch an attack on the French, but then malaria hit, and only 5,000 of those troops were able to fight.

British troops getting the hell off of a malaria infested island in August of 1809.

Make love, not war.

Two of the worst parts of this malaria outbreak were in northern Germany and Holland. The summer of 1826 was hot. About 20,000 people had malaria, and at least 5,000 of them died.

The island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea, had 20,000 people infected in 1830. Today, you can go to Lolland Island and visit their medieval living history museum. I’d want to eat at their restaurant, the Golden Swann, though I’m not sure what vegetarian options existed in medieval Denmark.

The Golden Swann. What can I say, I love a theme restaurant.

Why don’t people in Europe get malaria any more? I wish you hadn’t asked.

The short answer is: no one really knows. The long answer is: maybe the disease changed, maybe weather conditions changed, maybe insecticides, maybe knowing how to use medicines better. Maybe the five different types of malaria… well, you get the idea.

This discovery causes me to ponder; so often the huge, intractable problems of life end or are fixed in ways people find surprising and confusing. That’s the good news and the bad news, friends.


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