By Gregory Clark in London, May 20, 1944
The First Canadian division shares with one famous British division, the Seventh Armored, the distinction of having the best malaria record of all the British forces engaged in operations last summer and fall. The Germans used the mosquito as one of their most potent weapons. In Sicily the reason for their vicious determination to hold us down in the Catania plain was to subject us to the bites of mosquitoes in that heavily infested malaria district. They tried again in Italy in two other areas famous for centuries as malaria plague spots. In the Volturno valley and the Foggia plain they blew dykes, created dams, did everything engineers could think of to flood the ground, not to impede our advance alone, but to multiply that most ancient of war weapons, the mosquito.
In Italy I met Lieut.-Col. Jameson Carr, the eminent British malariologist, who has in his lifetime travelled over 1,000,000 miles to every part of the world studying malaria. He completing a tour of the Sicilian and Italian battlefields before returning to make a report to the war office.
“The mosquito,” said Lieut-Col. Jameson Carr, “has been a major weapon of war from time immemorial. Possibly the mosquito is the most ancient war weapon in human history, outdating even the spear and bow and arrow. Possibly because the Canadians were ‘new boys’ in fighting in malaria regions they achieved their distinguished record of low malaria casualties.
“Being new to malaria,” said Jameson Carr, “and also being in a high state of training when they reached Sicily, the Canadian commanders and the Canadian rank and file apparently lived up very fully to the precautions. My Investigation shows they took their mepacrine in an efficient and systematic fashion which I think is the number one reason for the good record. I also find they kept up their precautions well into November and some units into December long after the average man would suppose the mosquito had gone for the season. At all events, they turned in a fine performance.”
Col. Milton Herbert Brown, O.B.E., deputy director of hygiene at Canadian military headquarters in London, well-known Toronto doctor, described to me the dramatic circumstances surrounding the Canadians’ training against malaria. A certain percentage of Canadian medical officers, of course, had been given some training. During the long years of training in Britain several dozens of Canadian army doctors had attended the school of tropical medicine in London. When the first division went into hiding last summer, prior to their secret departure for Sicily, the war office warned the Canadians they were going to enter a malarial zone. The Canadians asked for and got Capt. F. W. Bone, British army specialist in malaria, and in a very short period prior to departure and during the tense and exciting period of the great convoy by ship to Sicily, the Canadians were initiated into the mysteries of this potent war disease.
Lectured on Malaria
“Our Canadian specialist in fighting malaria,” said Col. Brown, “was Major Paul Scott of Picton, Ont., commanding number two field hygiene section. Every officer and every man was lectured and instructed in malaria. The use of mepacrine was explained and its issue was begun at the very outset, long before the Canadians landed, so that every man’s blood was saturated with it. Leaflets were published and senior officers were fully instructed. It was short notice, but I am very proud to know the results were so good.”
“What is there,” I asked Col. Brown, “about malaria that makes it so peculiarly deadly in the military sense? The rate is not high, is it?”
“No, the average lay-off with malaria might be as low as two weeks,” said Col. Brown. “What happens is this. A commander plans a battle. He gets up all his supplies. He places his artillery in position, gets up ammunition in plenty, prepares his supply dumps in the fullest degree. But he does not know that perhaps 15 or 30 per cent of his troops, including possibly some of his essential junior officers and non-coms, have been infected with malaria which is due to break out at the critical moment of his attack.
“It takes on the average 12 to 20 days for malaria to develop in the human after being bitten. Sometimes less, sometimes up to 30 days or more. But when a man comes down with malaria he is completely helpless from the military point of view. He has a high fever, is weak and wholly incompetent to fight or carry out his normal duties. True, he does not very often die, though it can be malignant. But he has to be evacuated. He is a casualty in the same sense as if he had been wounded by a shell.”
Lieut.-Col, Jameson Carr told me some extraordinary facts about malaria. It is carried by the female mosquito only, and she must bite somebody who already has malaria before she can transmit it to someone else she bites later. If we could ever cure everybody in the world of malaria, that would be the end of it.
You come down with a violent fever, sometimes fatal. It lasts a couple of weeks until you conquer it with quinine or mepacrine. But it lingers in you normally for about two to three years, breaking out every seven to nine months in another return. Any mosquito that bites you in that time may pick up a stray bug to ripen in her own tiny system and transfer to somebody else.
Jameson Carr told me he had known of malaria doing many other things besides giving a fever. It can attack internal organs and simulate many diseases. Unless he is suspicious of malaria, a doctor can diagnose it as anything from venereal diseases, pneumonia or bronchitis to mental disorder.
Mepacrine, the drug we took in such quantities against malaria, is a pill about the size of an aspirin. It is the most awful and wild livid yellow color you ever saw. It is so bitter it makes your eyeballs contract. You take four a week with sometimes a double at the end of the week. A few days after you start taking it you begin to notice the webbing between your fingers and the tips of your fingers are starting to turn yellow. Presently your face begins to show a queer ivory glow, despite your sun tan. Finally your friends call you “daffodil.”
The Germans are credited with the discovery of the drug, which they call atabrine. Before going to the Mediterranean we were all issued with mosquito net canopies for our beds, and tins of mosquito ointment to smear on ourselves. But of all precautions everybody seemed convinced mepacrine was the trick that did it. Fill your blood with this acrid bilious yellow and even a leech would fall dead off you.
In exploring the malaria story, I found these instances among hundreds to demonstrate what a tricky weapon it is. In equipping an air squadron with a new bombing device one pilot was selected for special training to carry out the necessary experiment. The day the experiment began this officer went down with malaria. In the same Foggia area one of the best fighter pilots got into a terrible jam in the air and made an incredibly bad landing. In hospital it was found he had been taken with malaria in the air, though he was 100 per cent fit when he took off.
On the Sangro an outstanding officer was selected for a particularly hazardous job. He was given 30 selected men. They went into training for the task on which a large operation depended. In their training they were in advertently exposed to mosquitoes. The officer and eight of the men went down with malaria on the eve of the show. Such instances can be multiplied endlessly in all armies and probably back to Hannibal’s time or Nebuchadnezzar’s. If you think about malaria, you begin to see that war consists of a vast number of things besides shooting.
Editor’s Note: Mepacrine was initially approved in the 1930s as an antimalarial drug. It was used extensively during the Second World War by Allied forces fighting in North Africa and the Far East to prevent malaria.