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Book: The Moses of Malaria

June 18, 2011 - 09:46 -- Bart G.J. Knols

The book 'The Moses of Malaria', authored by Dr. Jan Peter Verhave, which was published recently by Erasmus Publishing in The Netherlands (find more information here), is all about the life and work of Professor Nicolaas Swellengrebel (1885-1970), beyond doubt one of the most important and influential scientists of 20th Century Holland.

Man and other animals are the hosts of bugs, those fellow-diners on or inside us that may cause diseases. Malaria parasites in our blood bring about fever and danger of death. Fortunately, the body defends itself, and a balance may settle. That phenomenon fascinated the Dutch parasitologist Nicolaas Swellen grebel and he felt the dilemma: exterminate the parasites and the mosquitoes, or control the disease, while maintaining the equilibrium in a population. As a biologist and unlike most doctors, he saw parasites as 'mere disturbers of the peace'.
Swellengrebel laid his professional basis in the Dutch East Indies and led the study of malaria in the Netherlands, its last stronghold in Northern Europe. As member of the Malaria Commission of the League of Nations he commuted between malaria regions abroad and at home. His hundreds of letters and publications are tokens of a broadening experience and expertise.

Eradication and control often kept malariologists in separate camps. Swellengrebel as a biologist spanned the ideas of doctors and mosquito fighters, based on research. His vision of versatile collaboration in public health serves as a lasting example. There is a long way ahead, coping with malaria and other parasitic diseases.

Fascinating in this 317 page volume is the discovery that 20th Century scientists were 'all-rounders'. Swellengrebel was a brilliant taxonomist (of malaria mosquitoes), but at the same time an immunologist and parasitologist. Finding such combinations of expertises today will be impossible, yet gave scientists in those days a much broader understanding of the field of malaria control and elimination.

The discussions on malaria elimination versus malaria control that were ongoing in the 1920s are in many ways the same discussions we read about today.

No doubt, it is not only pleasant to read about the life and work of Swellengrebel as a malariologist, but there are many lessons from that era that are still highly valid today. Conclusion: A must-read for malariologists today.

Jan Peter Verhave (1942) is a biologist who specialised in parasitology and malaria. Long before a malaria vaccine was in sight, he studied the (immune) responses after infection, both in laboratory models and in the field. Teaching human parasitology, including laboratory diagnosis was another of his capacities. In his spare time, he focused on the history of malaria and (tropical) medicine, and after retirement from academic life he devotes much of his interest to this field. In the present book he shows how complicated the fight against malaria was, is and will be.