Insect repellent: a historical perspective

Chinese Joss Sticks used to repel mosquitos

Biting insects such as mosquitos, ticks, flies, chiggers, fleas, mites, spiders and more have been pestering, infecting, and even killing, people throughout history. Did you know that you are more likely to die from the venom of an insect or spider, than a snake? Or that the flea was responsible for spreading Bubonic plague? One of the most sobering facts is that the mosquito is accountable for more than 1 million deaths every year, according to the AMCA. These facts and more have caused humans to seek out insect repellent methods and potions throughout history. Let’s take a look back at some ancient anti-mosquito repellent techniques.

Burning the midnight insect repellent oil

The first written account of insect repellent practices appears in Greek writer and geographer Herodotus’ account of the Greco-Persian war, The Histories, circa 425 BC. In this chronicle, Herodotus recounts that Egyptians living in marshy lands would mash, or boil the fruit of castor-oil plants, creating a very unpleasant-smelling oil that they would burn to keep mosquitos away at night, while they slept beneath netting.

When in Rome, use insect repellent

Ancient Romans had to use Anti-mosquito repellent because many regions in Italy at the time were marshlands where malaria vectors bred. These mosquitoes caused the Malaria pandemic – the “Roman Fever” – which some believe contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. To try and ward of mosquitoes, Ancient Romans would rub a mixture of oil, vinegar and secretions from the Manna Ash tree on their bodies – particularly on their feet and heads. The combination was believed to act as an anti-mosquito repellent by creating certain acids that made it harder for mosquitos to smell and locate their potential human hosts.

Insect Incense: ancient Chinese anti-mosquito repellent

During the Song Dynasty in China (960–1279), the traditional practice of burning joss sticks (slow-burning fragrant sticks) was used to create incense made out of argy wormwood leaves, duckweed and sulfur compounds. These incense sticks were burned to create “mosquito smoke” to repel mosquitos.

Insect repellent with a heart: therein lies the rub

Because of the respect Native Americans have for all living creatures, early tribes had many different natural insect repellents that would repel the insects without killing them. Regional tribes would use various pastes including roasted Western Yarrow leaves, or rotten alligator fat, or mud, as a topical rub to chase away unwanted mosquitos.

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