Malaria Epidemic at the University of Florida

A man standing near trees holding a butterfly net. The photo is black and white and from the early 20th century.
Submitted by Carl Van Ness, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives and University Historian

This essay was written in 2003, but seems more relevant than ever. How did the University of Florida respond to an epidemic in the early 20th century?

Edward Rawson Flint served as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Florida from 1904 until 1917, and it is for his contributions to the teaching of science that Flint-Keene Hall bears his name. Professor Flint was also a medical doctor, and during his 13-year tenure at UF he also held the title of Resident Physician. Flint arrived in 1904 when the university was located in Lake City and continued his student medical practice when the university moved to Gainesville in 1906. One of the enticements for moving to Gainesville was the city’s offer of free water; water that was pure and spring-fed. Lake City’s promoters countered that the water of Gainesville was “not an antidote for Gainesville fever.” The accusation was far from being specious. 

In a medical log now preserved in the University Archives, Flint recorded each patient he saw. The first Gainesville entries are dated October 16, 1906. Two students came to him complaining of pains and fever and Flint diagnosed malaria. Over the course of the academic year, Flint saw nine malaria cases. The disease reached epidemic proportions the following years. 21 new cases were reported in the fall of 1907, 18 in 1908, 23 the following year, and 29 in 1910, the last year of Flint’s log. Flint’s records indicate that more than a quarter of the 210 students enrolled in 1910 had been diagnosed with malaria. As malaria is a persistent disease that continues to produce symptoms long after the initial infection, Flint had to contend with an increasing number of chronically ill students. By 1910, malaria was the most common ailment treated by Flint. Fifteen grains of quinine taken daily was the standard treatment. 

At least two instances of malaria impacting a football game are known. The Florida Pennant, predecessor to the Florida Alligator, notes that halfback William Gibbs played the 1907 Rollins game with a malarial fever and was bedridden for weeks after the game. The Florida Times-Union worried that “a touch of malaria” might keep Captain Neal “Bo Gator” Storter out of the opening game of the 1911 season. (It didn’t.) Out of a roster of 15, eight members of the 1910 football team had been diagnosed with malaria at some time during their college stay. 

What was the source of the problem?  The vector for malaria is the Anopheles mosquito. This was well known, and the problems associated with the Anopheles are documented in an early master’s thesis. In a 1913 thesis entitled “Mosquito conditions at the University of Florida” entomology student U. Carr Loftin pinpointed several breeding areas on or near campus. Although difficult to imagine today, the campus historic district was originally surrounded by marshes, water-filled sinkholes, and hardwood hammocks. All were good places for mosquitoes to breed. However, in the natural wetlands larvae predators, such as minnows, kept the mosquitoes in check. The principal sources for the university’s mosquitoes were, instead, man-made. Especially troublesome was the university’s sewage that flowed into a natural depression now occupied by the stadium to create a large bog. (Yes, the Swamp really was a swamp.)  In the absence of natural enemies, the Anopheles multiplied by the millions, and humans did little to hamper their spread.   

According to Loftin, ten percent of the student population reported to the University of Florida Infirmary in 1912 for malaria treatment whereas less than one percent of the work force at the Panama Canal Zone did so. Loftin went on to state that eradication of the Anopheles breeding areas would have been relatively simple: “If Panama with her tropical rains and with excavations made by buildings, can be freed from mosquitoes and malaria, why can’t the University of Florida.”. Loftin attributed the lack of effort to a complacent attitude about the disease: “While the etiology of malaria is well understood, few people realize the importance of it. They take it as a matter of providence that everyone in the South should have it and that it does not amount to much.” 

It would take decades to eliminate mosquito borne diseases in Florida. A statewide outbreak of dengue in 1923 prompted a sanitation campaign that would greatly reduce the numbers. At UF, the campaign was a catalyst for a new sewage system, eliminating the dumping of waste on the west end of campus. It was not until 1934 that the University Physician could categorically state that no student living in a dormitory had contracted malaria from a campus mosquito. He did note, though, that adjacent city property continued to breed mosquitoes that were “carried by wind to the campus.” The last primary malaria infection of a UF student was recorded just before World War II.

Scientific drawing of The Banded Salt Marsh Mosquito among other newspaper articles.
Even in the early 20th century, Floridians worried about mosquitoes. This illustration is from the July 21, 1913 issue of the Lakeland Evening Telegram.

Want to learn more University of Florida history? We recommend you read Language Hall Leads the Way: A History of UF Buildings 101 next!

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