This article is reprinted and adapted from Peterson, R. K. D. 1995. Insects,disease, and military history: the Napoleonic campaigns and historical perception. American Entomologist. 41:147-160.

The article is copyrighted by the Entomological Society of America and is reprinted with permission. Other reproduction of this material is prohibited.


The French private squinted at the unbearable tropical sun beating down on him. He was baking in the humid heat of this accursed island, Saint Domingue. As he lay on his back on the lush, green vegetation, he could not move a muscle. The stiffness of his body echoed the pain in his head. Occasionally, he would vomit black fluid from his weakening body. After a few hours, he became delirious, mumbled his wife's name, and lost consciousness.

The blast of frigid Russian air surrounded Corporal Marcelin, as he huddled inside the makeshift, brush shelter near the Beresina River. This was the third night in a row he had shuddered from a high fever. He felt hot, but he was lying on several feet of hardened snow. Two nights before, he noticed that a red rash covered his dirty skin. This night, it was difficult for him to breathe, and he was wheezing loudly. In his delirium, he was now with his family, feasting on meat and potatoes.

The grenadier lay on the floor of the hospital in Jaffa, Syria. The building was so crowded that there were no more beds. Everywhere around him, his comrades writhed in pain. Two of the men in his company were dead; they had been in good health only the day before. The desert heat and corpses made a dreadful stench. He was shaking with fever, calling in vain for someone to help him (see footnote 1).

These three French soldiers, in the armies of Napoleon, were not suffering from wounds received during the heat of battle. There were no bullets or shrapnel to remove from their broken bodies. They were haunted by the specter of infectious disease, maladies as old as man and warfare. For every soldier killed on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars, four more succumbed to disease (Major 1941).

There is an old axiom that goes something like this: History is not what actually happened; it is what is perceived to have happened. As we shall see, historical perception does not always mirror historical reality. The maxim is especially salient in military history. Insects and the diseases they transmit have often been important players in battles, campaigns, and wars. However, this important historical aspect has been underappreciated.

Entomologists have long had an appreciation of the importance of insects and disease in influencing history. To some extent, this influence also is recognized by historians. After all, who can dispute the pivotal role the flea, the rat, and bubonic plague played in shaping the history of Europe. The Black Death helped alter the social landscape of Europe. Traditionally, historians have focused on the premise that humans have been largely responsible for historical events. But in the last few decades, the study of history has moved from concentrating on the direct influence of individuals to analyzing the effect of social and environmental forces. This focus has helped reveal the importance of disease in history.

McNeill (1976), in his brilliant treatise, Plagues and Peoples, addressed the effect of disease on world history. He concluded, with clear detail and analysis, that epidemics have profoundly shaped human culture and history. In an earlier book,Rats, Lice and HistoryZinsser (1934) cited several examples in which the dreaded disease typhus influenced the course of historical events, especially wars. He said that the acts of warfare "are only the terminal operations engaged in by those remnants of the armies which have survived the camp epidemics." A brief analysis of major military conflicts before the twentieth century reveals many instances where disease has played a role in the outcome of events. In some cases, disease played a key role; in other cases, disease played a contributing role. This conclusion is not meant to imply that humans had no control of their history before 1900. Rather, it demonstrates the major role that disease has played in historical events has been underappreciated.

In this article, I examine the influence of insect-borne disease on military. I characterize the role of insect-borne disease during three Napoleonic campaigns occurring between 1798 and 1813. I discuss disease within the context of epidemiological factors and models so that the role of disease during that period can be more fully understood.

Next Section: Epidemiological Perspectives

footnote 1:  Although these accounts are fictional, they are based on actual experiences recorded in various diaries and memoirs of the combatants. For example, Corporal Marcelin was a comrade of Sergeant Bourgogne who suffered from typhys fever during the retreat from Russia (see Bourgogne 1985).