Historical essay
Fleas, Fleas, Fleas

Fleas, Fleas, Fleas

In September, I turned on Democracy Now! and came into a story about the mass extinction of a third of the world’s parasites. Although I made sure that my response to the story included the morally and ethically correct alarm and horror, I must admit my initial response was relief. After all, parasites are, um, parasitical, “wheedling; fawning for bread or favors,” or, in the case of insects, bothersome, itchy, and transmitters of disease.

I am most familiar with fleas. Fleas, of course, transmit the bacteria that cause plague. The Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, was likely carried along the Silk Road by rat fleas that jumped aboard merchant vessels, continuing to wreak havoc, eventually killing up to 60% of the European population. While doctors can now treat the plague with antibiotics, it is still a public health risk. In July 2017, the New York Times reported on the recurrence of plague in New Mexico, and on October 1, 2017, the World Health Organization announced that it was responding to a large outbreak of the plague in Madagascar.

However, as a historian of colonial America and the early United States, I mostly think about fleas as ever-present and frequently-commented-upon pests. As I listened to the story about the extinction of parasites, the ghost of Martha Ballard appeared to me. She told me that after she aided in the delivery of her neighbor’s twins that she “could not sleep for fleas.” When she got home, she removed the fleas from her clothing, and, apparently, counted them, finding 80.1

Drawing of a flea.
Human flea, Pulex irritans. (© Florilegius / Science & Society Picture Library)

Parasites are itchy and troublesome. Seventeenth-century paintings sometimes featured nit- or flea-picking. As Katherine Ashenburg wrote in The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, paintings like this one, Woman Catching a Flea, by Georges de la Tour, reflected “a familiar theme in seventeenth-century painting, and no wonder, for children and adults, from the most privileged to the poorest, teemed with lice, nits and fleas.”2

Parasites — or at least the clothes that harbored them — were, of course, tied to cultural perceptions and practices during the centuries of European empire-building in the Americas. While Columbus’s sailors were afflicted with typhus spread by body lice, the Tainos they encountered may not have been. Diego Alvarez Chanca, who accompanied Columbus on his 1493 voyage remarked on the Tainos’ lack of clothing: “All these people, as I have said, go about as they were born, except the women of this island who keep their shameful parts covered, with cotton cloth …, the heads shaved in parts with such a variety of tufts, that they cannot be described.”3

Amerigo Vespucci similarly commented on the people he encountered. After describing other barbarous practices, Vespucci remarked on the men: “[W]hen they go to war they cover no part of their bodies, being in this like beasts.” He then turned his attention to the women: “The women, as I have said, go naked, and are very libidinous, yet their bodies are comely; but they are as wild as can be imagined.” The practices of wearing few clothes, cutting hair short, and bathing frequently served to keep parasites away and therefore reduced the risk of illness, but to Chanca, Vespucci, and other European observers, the lack of clothing was a sign of Indians’ savage ways, and a justification for conquest.

Some Europeans did recognize the merits of the Indian dress or lack thereof. Englishmen William Wood understood that the Indians he encountered “had rather goe naked than be lousie, and bring their bodies out of their old tune.”4 Wood was the exception, however, as most English commentators believed that civilization — and therefore properly-clothed bodies — outweighed the irritation of living with parasites. Because of this, colonists made frequent comments about the “nakedness” of the “savages” whose homes they came to occupy.5

Georges de La Tour, “Woman Catching Fleas,” c. 1630s. (Wikimedia)

Like many things that ail or annoy human beings, fleas were not only literal pests but figurative ones as well. In the early 18th century, Lewis Morris was tangled up in the politics of colonial New York. In 1734, he traveled to London to advocate for his political faction. Writing home to his compatriot, James Alexander, he complained about the land politics of his home colony, and particularly of the New York governor, William Cosby. “Governours are called the Kings representatives” but they showed “repeated instances of avarice cruelty and unjustice.”

Morris wasn’t sure that there was a solution to the problem, however. He feared that one bad governor might simply be replaced by another. He explained this, employing the metaphor of fleas: “One of my neighbours used to say that he allwaies rested better in a bed abounding with fleas after they had filld their bellies than to change it for a new one Equally full of hungry ones, the fleas having no business there but to Eat.”6 Satisfied fleas were less problematic than hungry fleas at home and in the political world.

More recently, fleas have been invoked by both sides in the escalating threats and posturing between the United States and North Korea. In late July 2017, President Trump’s deputy assistant, Sebastian Gorka called North Korea a “lilliputian flea.” Responding to Trump’s threats against North Korea at the United Nations General Assembly, the North Korean news agency, DPRK referred to Trump’s words as “the twitching of a dog licking its flea-riddled scrotum.”

Despite all of this, we cannot be relieved by the death of fleas, lice, and other parasites literally or metaphorically. History might tell us everything about how stubborn and persistent parasite infestation can be, but colonial Americans cannot teach us alarm at the death of these same creatures. The study that prompted the Democracy Now! interview tells us that “[i]f parasites face severe extinction risk in a changing climate, then the cascading impacts on ecosystems are likely to be profound.”

We cannot know the destruction that will follow the death of parasites, but we can know that there will be destruction. While not all scientists agree that climate change had a role to play in the Syrian civil war, for example, we do know that increasing drought (one of the causes of the civil war) has geopolitical consequences, including pushing more people into cities and increasing tensions.

My knowledge of the itching, biting, disease-carrying parasites that the people that I teach about and study commented upon frequently cannot save us in this instance. Historical actors wished for the eradication of parasites because they had no idea that the eradication of parasites could have harmful effects on all of us on this earth. Because of this, my initial relief at the death of fleas is replaced only with alarm. As humans, we must harness our brain power and our will, we must listen to the scientists, and we must try to save some of the creatures we have despised most upon this earth.


  1. Quoted in Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 17. Return to text.
  2. Katherine Ashenburg, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History (New York: North Point Press, 2007), 99. Return to text.
  3. Quoted in Noble David Cook, “Sickness, Starvation, and Death in Early Hispaniola,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32 (2002): 362. Return to text.
  4. Quoted in Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “Presentment of Civility: English Reading of American Self-Presentation in the Early Years of Colonization,” William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997): 203. Return to text.
  5. For a discussion of nakedness, see, for instance, Ann M. Little, “‘Shoot That Rogue, for He Hath an Englishman’s Coat On!’: Cultural Cross-Dressing on the New England Frontier, 1620-1760,” New England Quarterly 74 (2001): 238-273. Return to text.
  6. Stanley N. Katz, “A New York Mission to England: The London Letters of Lewis Morris to James Alexander, 1735 to 1736,” William and Mary Quarterly 28 (July 1971), 451. Return to text.

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.

1 thought on “Fleas, Fleas, Fleas

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      I have seen no evidence of the extinction of fleas (and ticks) in my neck of the woods. In fact, this year has been the worst ever for my cats (and I have had cats all my 53 years of life). I got regular flea collars, which usually do the job.

      But they still had fleas.

      In the past, I have occasionally had to add a dose of Advantage if the collars weren’t quite enough. So I dosed the cats who go out with Advantage from my old veterinarian who had passed away.

      But they still had fleas.

      I then purchased Frontline from my new vet and added the more expensive flea collars.

      But they still had fleas.

      Finally, I plumped for the expensive Bravecto flea and tick medicine (at $65 each for 4 cats, one of whom had never been to this vet and I had to pay for an office visit and additional services). And I treated my house too, just in case.

      But they still had fleas!

      It took another 2 weeks after they had the Bravecto for the fleas to finally disappear from my cats — but one of my kitties goes somewhere when he is out that he always comes back with at least one tick — strangely, and perhaps because of the meds and collar, the ticks ride along on the outer surface of his fur and don’t latch on through his skin — but I have to watch him as he comes in the door in case I have to flick the ticks off him so they don’t drop off in the house. Fortunately, he is an all-white cat and the black ticks are easy to spot.

      So my personal experience makes it a little hard to believe fleas and ticks are on the “down tick” — not in rural central New York State!

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