As water covers the prairie landscape this week, I’m sure that Winnipeg will soon be engaged in its annual battle with mosquitoes. Long before there was a Manitoba, the mosquito, which some jokingly call our “national bird,” was already well understood scientifically.
This is thanks largely to the work of the great Dutch microscopist Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), whose illustrations are shown here. Working with incredibly primitive microscopes, Swammerdam was among the first to document insect life cycles, and to carry out detailed studies of these creatures using dissections. What I find remarkable is how well his documentation stands up, more than 300 years later.
As this work so abundantly shows, much careful observation had to be done before ideas about systematic classification could really develop. And much additional observation would be done, by many patient scientists, before a clear theory of evolution would be put forward. The edifice of natural science is constructed of many such building blocks.
Sadly, and perhaps ironically, Swammerdam did not live to see the publication of some of his most important work. This man, who had subjected so many deceased mosquitoes to such indignities, met up with an extant one that happened to carry the malaria protist within its salivary glands. He died from this last contact with the insects, at the age of 43.
These illustrations are from the first English edition of Swammerdam’s work, published in London in 1758, about 80 years after his death. Many thanks to my mother, Mary Young, for kindly passing her copy of this edition on to me; she herself had received it as a gift in the 1950s. I thought it only fair that I should share it with others, and this seems the best way to do it!