- The Mosquito Wars: A History of Mosquito Control in Florida
Gordon Patterson introduces mosquito depredations by recounting historical observations from antiquity and from Western observers who first visited what is now Florida. The clouds of mosquitoes and their vicious bites irritated people, but more important, Anopheles mosquitoes were the vector of yellow fever, malaria, and dengue fever—and Florida hosted seventy of the four hundred Anopheles species. Patterson's book narrates the people and organizations in Florida involved in mosquito control. The 1888 yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville prompted the establishment of the Florida State Board of Health, and it was during Joseph Y. Porter's twenty years as Florida's medical officer that scientists determined the mosquitoes' role in disease transmission. Always hindered by parsimonious budgets, Porter and his staff attempted mosquito control by educating the public and by eliminating breeding areas.
Facing budget cuts in 1916, Health Board member George Simons focused on the logging town of Perry, surrounded by a malaria-ridden landscape of standing water. He attacked the breeding areas by ditching, and stocked streams with minnows that ate mosquito larvae; in a year, the malaria infection rate dropped by 90 percent, a graphic testimony to the effectiveness of interrupting the insect's larval stage. Despite the state government's indifference to control, booming cities such as Miami, Key West, Cocoa, and St. Petersburg realized that mosquito control was good for development. In 1922 a group of control enthusiasts founded the Florida Anti-Mosquito Association. Several powerful hurricanes and the Great Depression further hindered the state's mosquito control work. While the New Deal generated jobs, some of which were related to mosquito control, projects suffered from a lack of organization and expertise, as well as racial discrimination.
Patterson observes that the introduction of DDT and other synthetic pesticides after World War II was a major turning point in insect control. Highly effective chlorinated hydrocarbons prompted fantasies of mosquito eradication, but when mosquitoes built up a resistance to DDT and then other insecticides, control workers rethought their approach. Patterson does not fully evaluate the relative effectiveness of mechanical, biological, and chemical control, and while he deals with feuding both within the control ranks and with environmental [End Page 829] opponents, his presentation of ditching, impoundment, minnows, and other approaches is sometimes unclear. It was only in the 1950s that a younger generation of entomologists focused on the life cycle of mosquitoes. Despite the increasingly sophisticated chemical detective technology available by the 1960s, Florida control workers seemed either uninterested in measuring residues or ignorant of the new methods.
The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and the first Earth Day in 1970 were milestones in the growing awareness of toxicity and other environmental issues. In Florida, this translated into opposition to some forms of mosquito control, especially the use of chemicals. While many areas of the state made concessions to this new consciousness, Lee County control officer T. Wayne Miller created a small air force of DC 3s and, with nearly total power to fight mosquitoes, continued spraying. Control personnel and younger environmental advocates increasingly clashed over the proper approach to control.
Patterson provides ample bureaucratic detail on mosquito control, but he slights the significance of the state's efforts. It would also have been helpful to compare Florida's approach to that of other southern states. Patterson hesitates to support environmental arguments regarding pesticide toxicity, especially on aerial spraying's impact on snook and shellfish. In the narration of bureaucratic struggles, he sometimes loses sight of significant issues as he guides the reader through an acronymic jungle.