I was talking with an entomologist recently about new interspecies entanglements in the Anthropocene (party talk of grad students). Specifically, we were talking about his research on genetically engineered insects that can fight or be resistant to diseases like malaria. But, he told me, using the bodily being of one creature to fight a disease in another creature is nothing new. Of course, I know about treatments like the use of pig insulin to for human diabetics. But he told me about a historical treatment using malaria that I found quite fascinating. Evidently, during the heyday of syphilis epidemics (early 1900s), doctors noticed that patients who contracted higher, more regular fevers were often cured of psychosis-inducing neurosyphilis, the third stage of the disease. How could these fevers be reliably triggered? Well, as millions of past and present sufferers know, malaria is an all-too-reliable producer of nightly fevers. Scientists took advantage of its regularity and started infecting patients with malaria to treat neurosyphilis. Later scientists would posit that the fevers trigger an immune response rather than curing the syphilis themselves, but it worked, at a time when there was no other cure for the disease. The treatment of disease using malaria is aptly called malariotherapy. People still die of malaria in massive numbers, but this seemed like a risk worth taking, I guess. They did then treat the malaria with quinine, which had recently become available (and they used the least virulent strain of malaria – but still a considerable percentage of patients died).
And if that’s not enough interspecies encounter for you get this: it turns out that they often injected patients with the blood of rhesus monkeys who were infected with malaria in order to purposefully transmit the disease. So, just to sum up: monkey blood, with malaria parasites, injected into humans to treat neurosyphilis. So far I’ve attributed this treatment to mysterious ‘they’ but further investigation (i.e. strategic googling) reveals that these efforts were headed up by one man: Julius Wagner-Jauregg of Austria. This guy is a rather fascinating character. A Nazi supporter and an early proponent of the use of animal subjects for laboratory experiments, Wagner-Jauregg (featured in the cover image for this post) won the Nobel Prize in 1927 for his discovery of malariotherapy. He also held the position of Extraordinary Professor of Psychiatry and Nervous Diseases at the University of Graz, a title I think we should resurrect for every discipline.
This isn’t just a bit of historical trivia: as recently as the mid-1990s, malariotherapy was explored as a treatment for HIV, with apparently positive results (not sure whether monkey blood was the preferred form of transmission).
Why is this all relevant to emerging ecologies, or the Anthropocene? To begin, it seems like it can’t be emphasized enough that things have been weird for a long time and they’re probably just getting weirder. Humans and nonhumans have been taking risks and entering into experimental relationships with unknown forces, voluntarily or involuntarily, since (before) we’ve been around. Lately I’ve been idly worrying that interspecies becomings sometimes get a bit lost in Anthropocene enthusiasms for the geological and the human (a de-centered, complicated human, to be sure, but still human). Anna Tsing would remind us that “human nature is an interspecies relationship” (cited in Haraway, 2008: 19) but often it seems like this reality is an add-on, a “but of course” in Anthropocene musings about human agency. Certainly, this is not always the case; Geocritique’s own Elizabeth Johnson’s work on biomimicry highlights interspecies innovations and experimentations that are central to the ‘new natures’ of the Anthropocene. Bringing up this historical example might not be the most straightforward and is certainly not the only way of emphasizing interspecies relationships in the Anthropocene. But I think these histories have some value, not just in tempering claims about the novelty of the current era but also to ask, how did we get here, and who are we? And maybe to imagine that here we are, (among so many other things) feverish, riddled with monkey blood, tossing back quinine. Let’s make some natures.
Haraway, D. 2008. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press.
Image from: http://conversationswithdonmachingaandotherbeings.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/three-visits-to-the-mosquito-spirit-king/