Untold lives blog

11 posts from January 2020

07 January 2020

Sir Ronald Ross and the Transmission of Malaria

To mark the digitisation of medical archives in the India Office Records, I am highlighting some seminal research relating to Ronald Ross (1857-1932) and his important work discovering the causes of the transmission of malaria.

MosquitoMosquito BL: IOR/R/15/2/1061 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

By the late 1870s a miasmic (‘bad air’) theory of transmitting malaria was falling from favour and being replaced by a focus on biological transmission.  Corrado Tommasi-Crudeli and Theodor Klebs had isolated a bacteria from water which they claimed acted like malaria.  A French physician, Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran, had shown that malaria was spread by parasites by performing necropsies on malaria victims.  Following this groundwork, a combination of work from Patrick Manson, Giovanni Grassi and Ronald Ross added ultimately conclusive developments to the theory…

Man hiding under blanket with mosquito hovering overheadImage from Wallis Mackay, The Prisoner of Chiloane; or, with the Portuguese in South-East Africa (London, 1890) British Library 010096.ee.16 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence BL flickr 

Sir Ronald Ross was born in Almora, India, in 1857 to Sir Campbell Ross, a general in the Indian Army, and his wife Matilda.  He entered the Indian Medical Service in 1881.  During a year’s leave, he studied for the diploma in public health from The Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in England taking a course in bacteriology.

Photograph of Ronald RossSir Ronald Ross. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Ross’s interest in malaria began in 1892 when he was converted to the idea that the malaria parasites were in the bloodstream.  Patrick Manson demonstrated this to Ross in 1894.  In India, Ross was investigating if mosquitoes were connected to the transmission of malaria, but he was called away from malaria-infested areas on Indian Medical Service duty.  This frustrated Ross; he sent a letter requesting to be ‘put on special duty for a few months after relief at Bangalore to enable him to investigate the truth of Dr. Patrick Manson’s theory of the Transmission of the infection of malaria by means of the mosquito’. 

Proposal to place Surgeon Major Ronald Ross on special dutyIOR/P/5185 Mar 1897 nos 141-45; Proposal to place Surgeon Major Ronald Ross on special duty to investigate the truth of Dr. Patrick Manson's theory of the transmission of the infection of malaria by means of the mosquito Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The work would be carried out by someone who was ‘a microscopist and bacteriologist with a bent towards original research’.  Ross planned to follow Manson in proving that it was the mosquito which spread the disease.  He wrote instructions on how to carry out the experiments and listed three necessary proofs:
• That the parasite went through the same change inside the mosquito as it did in blood drawn from humans
• That the parasite was capable of developing and living inside the mosquito
• That the parasite could be communicated from the mosquito to humans.

On 20 August 1897, in Secunderabad, Ross made his breakthrough discovery.  While dissecting the stomach tissue of an Anopheles mosquito, fed four days previously on a malarious patient, he found the malaria parasite.  He noted these memorable words in a poem:
‘..With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death’.

Communicability of malaria by mosquito bitesBritish Library IOR/P/5644 May 1899 nos 156-59 Communicability of malaria by mosquito bites Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Ross continued his research in India and demonstrated that mosquitoes could serve as intermediate hosts for bird malaria.  He showed that the route of infection was through the bite of a mosquito with experiments on four sparrows and a weaver bird.  The account of these findings was presented to the British Medical Association in July 1898.  In 1902 Ross became the first Briton to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

David Moran
Western Heritage Collections

Further Reading:
IOR/P/5185 Mar 1897 nos 141-45 Proposal to place Surgeon Major Ronald Ross on special duty to investigate the truth of Dr Patrick Manson's theory of the transmission of the infection of malaria by means of the mosquito
IOR/P/5644 May 1899 nos 156-59 Communicability of malaria by mosquito bites
IOR/P/5418 Nov 1898 nos 10-12 Ronald Ross, Indian Medical Service, Preliminary Report on the Infection of Birds with Proteosoma by the Bites of Mosquitoes
IOR/P/434/44 Sep 1869 no 01 Report on the causes of malarial fever in Bengal
IOR/P/5644 Jan 1899 nos 79-82 Investigations at Rome into the role of mosquito-bites in the spread of malaria
IOR/P/5644 Jan 1899 nos 206-16 Proposed appointment of a Scientific Commission to investigate the causes and cure of malaria and the deputation to India of Dr C W Daniels to aid in the investigation
IOR/P/1204 Dec 1828 nos 10-13 Results of the trial made in certain hospitals in the Bombay Presidency with Mr Wood's alkaloids in the treatment of malarial fevers
IOR/P/351/37 20 Dec 1854 nos 6117-19 Report on sanitary conditions at Poona Cantonment and in the vicinity, and corrective measures to remove the causes of malaria


03 January 2020

Cache of hidden letters in the Granville Archive

The Granville Archive recently acquired by the British Library includes a collection of supplementary material previously hidden from public view.  When Castalia Leveson-Gower prepared her edition of the private correspondence of diplomat and statesman Granville Leveson-Gower (1773-1846), her father-in-law – the bulk of them are letters from his lover, Harriet Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough (1761-1821) – she carefully omitted any letters referring to the couple’s passionate affair, the secret births of their two children, and the delicate discussions between them and Lord Granville’s eventual wife, Harriet’s niece.  Even letters that were chosen for inclusion in the published edition had to be carefully filleted to cut out any tender endearment or reference to their illegitimate daughter and son.  The entire collection of original letters, including those published, was retained in private hands.  Its whereabouts was unknown to researchers until its acquisition by the British Library (along with Castalia Leveson-Gower’s research papers and her own private correspondence with her husband, the second Earl Granville).  The collection arrived at the Library, bundled in boxes and trunks, at the same time as the main, larger, Granville Archive (Add MS 89317).  Now the supplementary collection has been catalogued (Add MS 89382), and it provides a fascinating complement to the main family archive.

Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The new cache of letters will be a rich new source for researchers into late 18th and early 19th century politics and upper class society.  They shed particular light on the personal and political lives of aristocratic women of the period.  Besides the intimate letters between Lady Bessborough and Lord Granville relating to their clandestine affair and children, there are letters from other members of their circle of friends and relations, including Lord Granville’s mother, Susanna Leveson-Gower, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Lady Bessborough’s sister), and Caroline Lamb (her daughter).

Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 'I leave you and give you the only valuable gift in my power, wrote in my blood, my blessing.'  Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 (Add MS 89382/3/4) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Alongside discussion of the latest books and politics, perennial concerns about reputation, scandal and money run throughout this correspondence.  Huge gambling debts were a worry for many in their circle: in a bundle of letters to Lord Granville, the Duchess of Devonshire pleads urgently for funds to stave off creditors.  When the Duke of Devonshire died in 1811, a litigious dispute arose between his heir, the sixth Duke, and his widow, former mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster, over the family diamonds.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum there are smaller sums, such as the itemised accounts for housing and educating their illegitimate children which feature in Lady Bessborough’s letters to Lord Granville.

Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807. 'I have just given 30 guineas for a piano forte for tho it is a lump down it is cheaper in the end than hiring.'  Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807 (Add MS 89382/2/27) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The letters from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville tell a vivid story of their long relationship.  Frequent, often daily, letters passed between them, from their first meeting in Naples in 1794, when she was a married woman of 32 and he a 20 year old ‘Adonis’, until her death in Florence in 1821.  They describe the course of their affair through flirtation, intimacy, subterfuge, and passion, and the enduring friendship that survived it, cemented by the birth of their two children and his eventual marriage into her family in 1809.

Tabitha Driver
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts
Further reading:
Lord Granville Leveson Gower: Private Correspondence, ed. Castalia Granville (London, 1916)
Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (London, 1998)
Janet Gleeson, An Aristocratic Affair: the Life of Georgiana's Sister, Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough (London, 2006)


01 January 2020

A New Year card from MI5

This New Year Card was sent 100 years ago to Sir Malcolm Seton of the India Office by Colonel Sir Vernon Kell and the staff of MI5.  They wished him a happy and peaceful New Year for 1920.  The main message on the card is 'To Liberty and Security 1914-1919. Malevolence Imposes Vigilance 1920'.  The Great War had ended recently but threats to peace and stability continued.

New Year card MI5 1920

MI5 Greeting card from the Papers of Sir Malcolm Seton, India Office official 1898-1933 - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E 267/10B Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


We wish our readers a happy and peaceful New Year 2020.