07 August 2008

How the mosquitos of Smyrna were fond of tender dilettante skin back in 1764

I have been reading Richard Chandler’s Travels in Asia Minor, and Greece: Or An Account of a Tour Made at the Expense of the Society of Dilettanti that I found in Google Books. This is the 3rd edition that was published in 1817 in London; however, Chandler’s trip took place much earlier in 1764.

On arriving in Izmir in the heat of the summer, the city that was known to Chandler as Smyrna on the west coast of Turkey, he notes (p. 78):

...the mosquitos, or large gnats, which tormented us exceedingly by their loud noise, and by repeated attacks on our skin where naked, or lightly clothed, perforating it with their acute proboscis, and sucking our blood, till they were full. A small fiery tumour then ensues, which will not soon subside, unless the patient has been, as it were, naturalized by residence; but the pain is much allayed by lemon-juice. At night they raged furiously about our beds, assaulting the gauze-veil, our defence, which, thin as it was, augmented the violent heat to a degree almost intolerable. Their fondness of foreign food is generally but too visible, in the swollen and distorted features of persons newly arrived.
I found several points in Chandler’s account curious and questionable.

First, that he found it necessary to explain what a mosquito was and what it did shows that he didn’t expect his contemporary British readers to be familiar with them.

Second, he fails to mention that a mosquito’s “tumour” actually gets itchy, unless that is what he means by “fiery”.

Third, does lemon juice really help ease the itchiness of a mosquito bite?

Fourth, despite his claim, I don’t think a person can become “naturalized” or accustomed to mosquito bites to the point of not being bothered by them. A more likely explanation for the apparent lack of visible mosquito bites on the locals’ bodies is that they were probably used to the heat and could sleep wearing clothing that covered their bodies or perhaps under the sheets and thereby avoided the mosquitos.


John said...

I think he was engaging in a bit of hyperbole to inform his readers about how brave he was to travel.

Funder said...

Well, anecdotal experiences from my own life have shown me that some people are in fact "tastier" to mosquitos than others. If my mom, my dad, and I are all sitting outside together, there will be 50 mosquitoes devouring my mom, about 5 thinking about maybe biting me, and none on my dad. Ever. Mosquitoes seem to think he tastes horrible.

The more scientific explanation for Chandler's experience is that perhaps the diet of the natives and the diet of the travelers differed in some crucial way?

Or maybe he's just an ancestor of my mom :)


Chandler & his companions were eating whatever the locals were eating. But, yes, mosquitos may indeed pick & choose between people depending on body odors & other volatile substances given off by the skin. For example, according to this paper, mosquitos are more attacted to people who are infected with malaria than not.

Funder said...

Thanks for the link! That's fascinating, and I've always suspected that mosquitos do discriminate among humans somehow. I think I will email my mom and ask if she has malaria!

Michael said...

I am one of those people who are rarely bothered by mosquitos so I have no personal experience, but I have heard others recommend lemon as a treatment for mosquito bites. A quick Google search even turned up a web page recommending it ( http://www.ehow.com/how_4450783_use-natural-remedies-mosquito-bites.html). Chandler may well have been wrong about using lemon juice but I suspect it was the standard remedy at the time.