Science  /  Vignette

In the 1880s, D.C.’s Doctors Argued About Malaria and Its Cause

Malaria — literally, if not scientifically, "bad air" — once claimed Washingtonians by the score. So why did some doctors believe it wasn't real?

In the fall of 1881, some of Washington’s doctors decided they’d had enough. The city in which they practiced medicine was being routinely maligned as a literal hotbed of a debilitating, and occasionally deadly, disease.

As a Nov. 9, 1881, story in The Washington Post put it: “Washington has a scapegoat upon whose back is placed the burden of all undefinable and unpreventable ills. It is called malaria.”

The article had a headline we’d recognize today as clickbait: “Is Malaria a Myth?” According to the story, newspapers around the country were leading their readers to believe that “there hangs over Washington a dreaded monster whose poisonous wings are outstretched above the city, shedding death and destruction.”

And so some physicians began pushing back. The Medical Association of the District adopted a resolution to poll its members and ask them about malaria. “It is apparent that this view of the unhealthfulness of our city is gaining ground abroad and that great injury is thereby done to its material prosperity,” said the resolution.

It was true that Washington had a bad reputation, malarially speaking. A Philadelphia writer had noted the city’s “miasmatic troubles” caused by “disgusting accumulations” along the banks of the Potomac. So common was malaria, the writer joked, that congressmen trotted out the ailment as a convenient excuse for everything from being late to meetings to suffering hangovers.

A Post reporter contacted local doctors to ask about their experiences with malaria — or “so-called malaria,” as some observers referred to it. Some said malaria was a thing. Others that it wasn’t. One, a Dr. Hagner, said malaria was present in the city but overestimated.

“I have only some four or five cases of malarial fever, and these are on E street on the river front and in the vicinity of Rawlins Square,” he told The Post.

Hagner said it was imprudent to sit outdoors with an uncovered head after nightfall in late summer and early fall. “Nothing will bring on malarial fever as quickly as this,” he said.

Also dangerous: walking in the sun or “sleeping in such a position that the night air blows on you.”

As people sought to determine the cause, 130 Washingtonians died of malarial fever in 1881.

Newspapers were full of ads for anti-malarial patent medicines. The maker of Hostetter’s Bitters crowed that its product was popular in the tropics, “where the torrid heat exhales from dank, decaying vegetation the air-poison from which produced the worst forms of fever and ague and bilious remittent.”

Air-poison? Decaying vegetation? What gives?