Mosquito Epidemics, Oh My!

After picking up all the soggy Spanish moss in my yard after Tropical Storm Colin I started thinking about mosquito epidemics.  Well, this was how my thought process ended up on disease caused by skeeters:

1."I hate Spanish moss because it's everywhere after a storm"

2. It can be useful.  The early settlers used it for comfort by stuffing their mattresses with it and if you're lacking water in the woods, you can suck on the inside."

"Chiggers - I hope there's no chiggers in this stuff cause I've feeling itchy!"

"OMG, I just got bit and I hope it was a chigger and not a mosquito!"

All that rain has produced a bumper crop of mosquitoes in my area.  I tend to use natural products so I've been dowsing myself with Skin So Soft even though I hate the smell of it.

I don't know if Zika is causing concern in your area like it is here; the Avon lady told me she completely sold out of Skin So Soft the week before my purchase.  Understandable, as even the state of Florida website has a post that would make anyone not want to live here:

"Mosquito-borne diseases found in Florida include West Nile virus disease, Eastern equine encephalitis, and St. Louis encephalitis. Many other mosquito-borne diseases are found in different parts of the world, and can be brought back to Florida if infected people or animals are bitten by mosquitoes while in Florida. Some examples of these diseases include chikungunya fever, dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, and Rift Valley fever."1  

Notice how Zika isn't even mentioned.  With 15 reported cases in my county I think it should be included!  So that's how my mind started thinking about epidemics back in the day.

What did people do  when there was no products to repel critters?  I decided to investigate...

When a major yellow fever epidemic hit Tampa in the 1880's, a well meaning Jacksonville doctor recommended  that everyone leave town as he thought poor sanitation was the cause.  Calling the people of Tampa dirty caused a backlash in the press and his response below explains  his scientific rationale:
As to Yellow Fever - excerpt2

I guess the good doctor should have been more specific as to where those fleeing the epidemic should go as this shows how they were greeted in New York:

Print in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper about yellow fever

Man's inhumanity to man; labeled refugees and turned away.  Hmm, how history repeats itself!

The state government had no idea how to contain the spread so they returned to what worked in the middle ages - burn the property of anyone infected:


The belief in fumigation lasted well into the 20th century.  A Leininger cousin of mine was the inventor of this device:

You read that right!  Dr. George Leininger Chemical Company of Chicago manufactured a Formaldehyde Generator to disinfect the sick room. I guess if the disease didn't kill you, the chemicals would!  Seriously, my son the chemical engineer almost had a heart attack when I purchased this on E-bay.  I have no plans to use it. I just thought it fit perfectly in our den with our other family treasures.

Back to the Tampa epidemic - what I learned was that there was NOTHING available to the population to prevent the spread of the mosquito born disease.

Florida has always been swampy yet it was settled by Native Americans long before the Spanish arrived.  How did they repel the critters?

I found lots of theories but no proof.  Some say citronella was used but that is not native to Florida. Southern bayberry, paw paw,  bracken fern or cedar have been recommended but I find nothing to link them to Native Americans usage as an insect repellent.  Personally, I'm doubting that any of those plants were effective  as I have a side yard filled with bracken fern and the mosquitoes seem to be worse there in the shade than in the more open spaced parts of my yard.  We have cedars around, too, so that's not helpful.  I've never seen a bayberry or paw paw.  My neighborhood is filled with old oaks so perhaps they grew here more than 150 years ago.

The Washington Post mentioned that burning sweet grass, which does grow throughout Florida, was effective.5    I don't believe Native Americans walked around holding burning grass all day and night, though.

Some have suggested diet, while others say lung capacity discharging carbon dioxide differed.  I have no idea but I'd love to know the lost secret because this is going to be a long itchy summer!

My son built this handy dandy mosquito trap for us:

It won't kill adult skeeters but it does kills the larva, if the standing water on the top is drained through the middle level (an old pillow case).  The water drips through the middle layer into the bucket, the larva die on the pillow case (or lizards and birds come and have a delightful treat).  The bucket water is then placed back into the top to start the process all over again.  Does it work?  Yes, if you faithfully drain.  No, if the weather is so awful outside that you can't do it.  It also doesn't kill mosquitoes that fly in from other areas, like the park that has standing water in low spots.  Going to keep using it though, as every little bit helps.

Now I'm going back to hunting ancestors and not skeeters.  That's much safer!

2 John P. Wall "As to Yellow Fever" Florida Times-Union.
3. Frank Leslie,  "Refugees from areas with yellow fever are not allowed to leave the trains, for fear of spreading disease,"  Illustrated Newspaper, 8 September 1888,
4 Letter from J.J. Daniel, President, Jacksonville Auxiliary Sanitation Association to Dr. Porter, 17 October 1888.
5Wilborn P. Nobles III "Research confirms Native American use of Sweetgrass as a Bug Repellent" Washington Post, 18 Aug 2015.
My thanks to the Florida Memory Project where a lot of this information was found - you can read more records there regarding the Yellow Fever scare in Florida.


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