Biting Words

The Culture of Insect Fear in the Mid-20th Century United States

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Zoo Insect MosquitoLIFE Photo Collection

Imagine you are a newly hatched mosquito.

After two days of growing in a small puddle, you are now emerging from a pupal state. Alongside hundreds of other mosquitoes, you take to the air and start hunting for the nutrients that will allow your species to survive.

Figure 125. Hessian-fly. Figure 126. Mosquito. Figure 127. Maggot of House-fly (1887) by Joel Dorman Steele and J. W. P. (John Whipple Potter) JenksScience History Institute

But time is tight.

As a female, you have six weeks to reproduce, while your male mates have about one week.

Plant nectar provides a certain amount of energy, but as you prepare to create the next generation, a big, warm, and endlessly nourishing form of food comes bumbling through your habitat.

For you, the mosquito, this is a matter of life and death.

A man leaning over the side of a bed vomiting, from a broadside entitled 'Death of Aurelio Caballero due to yellow fever in Veracruz' (1892) by José Guadalupe PosadaThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

And for the human whose blood you seek, it can be, too.

Handbook of Pest Control: The Behavior, Life History, and Control of Household Pests (1954) by Arnold MallisScience History Institute

Indeed the mosquito’s ability to transmit deadly diseases has inspired significant concern and fear throughout human history. 

Interestingly, only female mosquitos spread diseases such as Zika virus, West Nile virus, dengue, yellow fever, and malaria to humans.

This is because only female mosquitos have the needle-shaped proboscis necessary to puncture skin and draw blood.

DDT and the Insect Problem (1946) by James C. Leary, William I. Fishbein, and Lawrence C. SalterScience History Institute

In the 19th century, both malaria and yellow fever proved incredibly deadly for the U.S. population. Warm summers provided ideal conditions for the proliferation of mosquitos and the diseases they carried.

But connections between disease outbreaks and mosquitos were not scientifically confirmed until the 1890s. 

As this map depicts, mosquito-borne malaria remained a problem in the United States as late as 1946, particularly in the South.

Mexican Brand Insect Fluid Label (ca. 1910 to ca. 1915) by Mexican Roach Food Co.Science History Institute

As the connection between mosquitos and serious diseases was made more explicit through medical research, modern nations increasingly attempted to eliminate the insect through the widespread use of pesticides.

This goal was achievable, in part, due to the growth of industrial chemical firms, which began to purify organic pesticides for commercial use and produce new (and increasingly deadly) synthetic pesticides.

L’Insectoline (1930)Science History Institute

While a number of synthetic pesticides were produced and used in the early 20th century, perhaps the most widely recognized is Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT. 

DDT was first synthesized in 1874, but its insecticidal properties were not recognized until 1939.

Due to its ease of production and its relative safety for human handlers, DDT became a key tool for the U.S. war effort during World War II. 

DDT: Killer of Killers (1946) by O. T. (Oswald Theodore) Zimmerman and Irvin LavineScience History Institute

Used liberally in both the Mediterranean and the South Pacific, DDT allowed the U.S. Army to avoid great losses to insect-borne diseases like malaria and typhus.

For this reason, the pesticide was pitched as a weapon that could win the war against both the Axis nations and the insects that plagued humanity.

DDT...A deadly new bug killer as potent against insects as the sulfas and penicillin are against disease (1944) by Walter Adams and Burmah BurrisScience History Institute

DDT kills insects by disrupting the sodium channels in their nerves. 

When an insect comes into contact with DDT... 

...it keeps their sodium channels open, thus allowing prolonged electric impulses to travel across nerve membranes…

...and ultimately causing the insect’s nervous system to fail.

DDT, The Synthetic Insecticide (1946) by T. F. (Trustham Frederick) West and George A. CampbellScience History Institute

As military documents from World War II reveal, researchers recognized that while larger life forms had more resistance to such nerve disruption, prolonged exposure to DDT could negatively impact other animals, including humans.

The Red Mite Invasion (1939) by Dow Chemical CompanyScience History Institute

Nevertheless, DDT proved incredibly effective during the war due to its low cost, great persistence, and ability to kill a variety of insects.

Despite uncertainty about DDT’s effects on other lifeforms, the pesticide became a common tool for American agriculture in the 1950s.

Over the following 30 years, around 1,350,000,000 pounds of DDT were used in the United States.

Chase’s Products New Insect Bomb (1928/1971) by Chase Products Co.Science History Institute

Recognizing the sheer power of DDT to eradicate insects on farms and in homes, pesticide manufacturers retained their wartime rhetoric to market their products.

Given DDT’s ability to reduce human exposure to deadly insect-borne diseases, this aggressive language maintained a certain level of credibility.

As DDT was repackaged for use in the U.S. household, it was pitched as yet another post-war technology that would bring about new levels of comfort and cleanliness.

Man-Made Malaria (1945) by United States Navy Bureau of Medicine and SurgeryScience History Institute

While post-war advertisers proclaimed that DDT was easy to use and safe for the household, they continued to depict and laud its deadly effects.

Consequently, World War II imagery mixing racialized hatred with environmental fears often bled into cultural depictions of insects.

Toxaphene Exhibition Display (1950s) by Hercules IncorporatedScience History Institute

The hatred and fear of insects even transcended the glossy domain of advertising. Insect and insect-inspired enemies became a trope of 1950s American pop culture. 

Serialized science fiction and pulp stories like The Savage Swarm (1957) featured insects as mankind’s greatest threat. Yet the most widely disseminated example of this cultural trend was the “Big Bug Movie.”

By the mid-1950s, the “Big Bug Movie” had become a popular science fiction film genre. Enlarging insects to supernatural proportions, these movies played on preexisting fears of insects’ ability to destroy crops, infiltrate human living space, and spread disease.

Celebrated examples include Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and Beginning of the End (1957).

Rachel Carson (1962-09-24) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

At the end of the 1950s, the growing volume of environmental concerns began to moderate the aggressive cultural rhetoric aimed at insects. Fewer “Big Bug” films were produced, and environmental advocates such as Rachel Carson increasingly questioned the widespread use of DDT.

Color-printed ad for Socony-Vacuum Bug-a-boo (1960/1979) by Socony-VacuumScience History Institute

As Americans in the 1960s and 1970s increasingly advocated for a holistic view of environmental balance, insects gained greater recognition for their important role in the maintenance of ecosystems.

By 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the agricultural application of DDT. Nevertheless, the widespread use of other pesticides continues to this day.

Zoo Insect MosquitoLIFE Photo Collection

Mosquito-borne diseases remain a serious and life-threatening problem in many parts of the world.

For this reason, humanity’s tense relationship with the mosquito will likely continue and pesticides will remain an important tool in the complex balance of human and animal life.

What this mid-20th century story of the American cultural relationship to the mosquito (and insects more broadly) ultimately reveals to us, is the danger of embracing the language of hatred and fear as well as methods of total annihilation in our quest to control environments and make the world more habitable for humanity.

Credits: Story

Written and curated by Peter Thompson, Science History Institute

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