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Book Wins Prize, Shows How Mosquitoes Changed History

John McNeill

Historian John McNeill received the 2011 Albert J. Beveridge Award for his recent book Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

January 24, 2011 – John McNeill, university professor in both the history department and the School of Foreign Service, has won the American Historical Association’s 2011 Albert J. Beveridge Award for his book Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The book examines the links among ecology, disease and international politics within the context of what is sometimes known as the Greater Caribbean – the areas lying between Surinam and the Chesapeake.

Mosquito Power

Ecological changes, McNeill explains in the book, made these areas prime for mosquitoes that spread yellow fever and malaria. He argues that these two diseases played central roles in the many struggles for power among imperial states and revolutionary movements in the area.

“This book could scarcely have won such an award without the pre-publication critiques of more than a dozen colleagues from the history department and the School of Foreign Service (SFS),” McNeill says. “A historian of modern China, for example, pushed me to explain the full significance of the plantation system for Caribbean ecology. 

A political scientist convinced me I had ‘buried the lead,’ as journalists say, and needed to reshuffle my introduction accordingly,” he adds. “It might not take a village to write a book, but it took helpful colleagues willing to sacrifice their time for me to write this one well enough to win a prize.”

Shaping Empires

Aviel Roshwald, chair of the history department, says “whether the flutter of a butterfly wing can change the course of human history is a matter for metaphysical speculation, but that the bite of the mosquito can shape the fate of empires has now been convincingly documented by John McNeill's new book.”

He adds that the core idea of the book – that differential resistance to mosquito-spread diseases favored long-established colonists over invading rivals' forces in the  New World – is elegant and powerful in its simplicity.”

“It is an honor to count such a masterful historian as one of our many distinguished colleagues,” Roshwald says.

The Beveridge Award is given annually for the best book in English on the history of the United States, Latin America or Canada from 1492 to the present. The award honors the late U.S. Senator Albert J. Beveridge (Indiana, 1899–1911), a longtime member of the American Historical Association and supporter of history as both lawyer and senator.

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