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An Entomological Flight Through the Military Health System

Did you know that throughout our history, more service members have died from infectious diseases, including those transmitted by bugs, than from bombs or bullets? Buzz through time to learn about the fascinating history of entomology in the Military Health System.

Bug Week 2023 hero image

A timeline tracking the history of entomology in the Military Health System.

1898 Clara Maass

Clara Maass

Clara Maass gave her life - literally - to the field of entomology. Maass was a U.S. Army contract nurse during the Spanish-American War. After serving in Florida, Georgia, and Santiago, Cuba, she volunteered to serve in the Philippines, and tended to soldiers suffering from yellow fever. In 1900, Maass answered a call from Las Animas Hospital in Cuba for more nurses to serve in the hospital’s inoculation station. There, she volunteered for experimental inoculations (that used yellow fever-infected mosquitoes to induce mild disease among susceptible individuals) to control yellow fever. She survived five experimental bites over three months. Sadly, she died on Aug. 24, 1901, after a sixth inoculation, and experiments on yellow fever with human subjects soon ended. Maass’ contributions to entomology as an experimental volunteer advanced guidelines for patient treatments and allowed further study of mosquito infections related to yellow fever.

1901 Walter Reed

Walter Reed

Maj. Walter Reed was a U.S. Army physician. In 1901, he led the team that supported and confirmed the theory that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes rather than through human contact. This discovery resulted in new prevention strategies to protect American service members, which ushered in the new sciences of epidemiology and biomedicine. In Panama, Col. William Gorgas used the results from Reed’s ground-breaking experiments and integrated pest management efforts to control yellow fever and other vector-borne diseases, which allowed the Panama Canal to be completed in 1914. Yellow fever had devastated previous international efforts to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Gorgas and his public health team were an integral piece of this incredible engineering feat.

1942 Entomologists added to Navy Epidemiology Units

Entomologists Added t o Navy Units

Navy Epidemiology Units were deployed to Éfaté, a strategic stronghold in the South Pacific, in 1942 to support a battalion of Marines on the island. Each Marine division was provided an NEU manned with three officers (including one entomologist) and 12 enlisted sailors. By 1944, there were approximately 150 NEUs, with 900 personnel and 200 entomologists. The malaria case rate declined to nearly zero in the Pacific. Among the entomologists was Ensign Kenneth L. Knight, the first Navy entomologist to work in a combat zone.

1942 Malaria Control in War Areas

Malaria Control in War Areas

In the early 1940s, the Japanese were poised to challenge the United States and its allies in the Pacific. The U.S. committed troops to remote locations where a bloodthirsty enemy was waiting: the small, but deadly, malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito. Responding to this threat required an effective medical and public health force — including entomologists. The U.S. Public Health Service and state health departments established the Malaria Control in War Areas in March 1942. The MCWA was a joint effort to reduce the dangers of malaria transmission in military zones and around essential war industries. At the time, there were just 14 entomologists in the Organized Reserve, and all were ordered to active duty. Their mission was to control mosquitoes within a one-mile perimeter of any military establishment.  World War II was the first major conflict the U.S was involved in that included uniformed entomologists. Since then, military entomologists have been a part of every major operation and contingency in which the U.S. military has been involved.

1944 The Sanitary Corps

Sanitary Corps

The Army Medical Department was expanding, due in part to officers who were becoming experts in emerging technologies and sciences. These officers’ scientific specialties proved invaluable to the health of warfighters. One of those specialties was entomology. By 1945, there were 239 entomologists serving as Sanitary Corps officers. Entomologists proved themselves essential members of the collective preventive medicine team that fought diseases transmitted by insect vectors. Entomologists’ missions in the East and Southeast Asia reduced the malaria casualty rate and was deemed an historic achievement.

1947 Malariology and Pest Control Unit

Mariology Pest Control Unit

The Malariology and Pest Control Unit was established at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, and commissioned the Malaria and Mosquito Control Unit No. 1 in 1949. Its mission was to better protect deployed forces from blood-feeding insects that transmit human diseases. The Malariology and Pest Control Unit advanced force health protection through disease vector surveillance, control, and training to enhance Navy and Marine Corps mission readiness. Lt. Cmdr. John M. Hirst (Navy entomologist) was assigned as the first Officer in Charge. In 1952, the Unit was renamed Preventive Medicine Unit No. 1. In /1978, PMU-1 was further renamed to the Navy Entomology Center of Excellence, the name which it retains today.

1950 Air Force Medical Entomology

AF Medical Entomology

The Korean War was the U.S. Air Force’s first conflict as an independent service. The fledgling USAF realized that it needed its own entomology force, with aerial spraying capability. Hundreds of cases of Japanese encephalitis and malaria were diagnosed in the Allied forces. A program for aerial spraying had already been proposed by the 5th Air Force, and in 1951, C-46 aircraft began flying operational spray missions over a series of targets on a 21-day treatment interval. These missions were considered highly successful and helped to firmly establish the entomology program in the Air Force.

1950 The Catastrophe Aid Bill

Catastrophe Aid Bill

A portion of the Catastrophe Aid Bill (humanitarian and disaster relief) was allocated for insect population control, which is absolutely necessary following a natural disaster. A Vector Control Team was established to provide quick responses during natural disasters. During the great Kansas City flood of 1951, the first Navy unit provided insect control support.  Six enlisted sailors trained in the Malaria and Mosquito Control Unit at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. Those six and an assistant were ordered into the disaster district on request of the Kansas City office of the U.S. Public Health Service. Armed with four large fogging units and four power spray units mounted on 1 1⁄2-ton trucks, teams of naval and civilian personnel sprayed the worst sections each day with 1,000 gallons of chlordane, a pesticide. By the end of six weeks of spraying, the massive outbreaks in fly production over heavily flooded areas were all but eradicated.

1956 Armed Forces Pest Management Board

Armed Forces Pest Management Board

Originally chartered as the Armed Forces Pest Control Board, the Armed Forces Pest Management Board was established by DOD Directive in 1956. Vector-borne disease, particularly malaria, resulted in far more casualties among U.S. forces in the South Pacific during World War II than did combat. In response, the Army formed Mosquito Survey Units, and the Navy formed Malaria Control Units. The Navy units would unofficially be known as the “Skeeter Beaters.” Their success resulted in the services permanently establishing pest and vector surveillance and control capabilities. The AFPMB coordinates pest management activities, develops guidance, and recommends pest management policy across the DOD.

1950 The Korean Conflict

Korean Conflict

North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, marking the official start of the Korean War. Malaria, louse-born typhus, and relapsing fever were prevalent, and resulting vector-borne diseases was responsible for many casualties. Six military entomologists served duty in Korea from 1950-1955. Lt. William B. Hull was the first Navy entomologist assigned to Korea, serving with Fleet Epidemic Disease Control Unit, 1st Marine Division. Lt. Cmdr. H. S. Hurlbut was the first Navy entomologist assigned to sea duty, serving aboard the laboratory ship LSI(L)-1091 with Fleet Epidemic Disease Control Unit #1, tasked with supporting combat operations.  

1966 Operation FLYSWATTER

Operation FLYSWATTER

Despite extensive experience with mosquito-borne diseases that crippled U.S. forces during World War II and during the Korean War, the United States military was unprepared for Anopheles mosquitoes in South Vietnam. Malaria was ravaging U.S. forces. The solution? Operation FLYSWATTER. Modified UC-123 transport planes were modified to spray insecticide concentrate. The spray missions were treetop-level flights that lasted up to two very treacherous hours. The 'mosquito war' required more than 1,300 missions, dispensing approximately 1.76 million liters of malathion concentrate. Operation FLYSWATTER was a significant part of the United States' preventive medicine program to reduce the number of man-days lost in ground forces due to malaria.

1981 Operational Entomology Training

Operational Entomology Training

The DOD developed a two-week Operational Entomology Training course in support of disaster relief, combat, and other contingency operations. OET was developed as advanced training for active duty and reserve preventive medicine personnel functioning in applied vector-borne disease control. OET was first offered at the Disease Vector Education Control Center in Jacksonville, Florida. The following year, OET was given at the DVECC in Alameda, California. Today, OET is taught twice a year at the Navy Entomology Center of Excellence and has reached hundreds of preventive medicine professionals of all services. 

1982 Mobile Medical Augmentation Readiness Teams

Mobile Medical Augmentation Readiness Teams

From 1982 to 1984, Navy entomologists were called upon to support U.S. peacekeeping forces in Beirut, Lebanon, as members of Mobile Medical Augmentation Readiness Teams. In 1983, a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives in front of a barracks building; 243 Marines and sailors lost their lives in the blast. As a result of that devastating attack, the Navy developed readily deployable MMART blocks of equipment and supplies that could be task-organized, loaded, and shipped anywhere in the world at a moment's notice

2003 Operations Enduring Freedom & Iraqi Freedom

Enduring Freedom Iraqi Freedom

During Operation Enduring Freedom (and eventually Operation Iraqi Freedom) in early 2003, Navy entomologists were deployed to Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq to provide preventive medicine/disease vector surveillance and control for U.S. and coalition forces. The first Navy vector control team arrived at Camp Viper, Jalibah, Iraq as part of the Navy’s highly mobile and task organized Forward Deployable Preventive Medicine Unit supporting the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Since then, Navy entomologists have provided disease vector control/preventive medicine support to DOD operations throughout the world, including Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Haiti.

2003 Humanitarian Assistance to the Republic of Palau

Humanitarian Assistance Palau

In 2003, the Republic of Palau, in the western Pacific Ocean, requested U.S. entomological assistance.  Specifically, help was needed to conduct surveillance for Aedes aegypti, a vector of dengue viruses plaguing the Republic. A team of 12 U.S. military public health personnel, including two entomologists, spent two weeks conducting an extensive survey for A. aegypti throughout the islands of Palau. The team provided in-depth mosquito surveillance and control training for the Republic’s environmental health personnel. The team also provided surveillance and control equipment. This effort enhanced the Republic’s ability to conduct future mosquito surveillance and control operations.

2004 Deployed War Fighter Protection Program

deployed Warfighter Protection Program

Deployed War-Fighter Protection is a DOD-sponsored research program administered by the Armed Forces Pest Management Board. The DWFP solicits proposals to develop and test pest management tools to support deployed warfighters. This research initiative provided $3 million per year to collaborate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service laboratories and $2 million per year to military entomologists and academia.

2005 Navy Entomology Center of Excellence

Navy Ento COE

The Navy Entomology Center of Excellence was established to replace the Disease Vector Education Control Center in Jacksonville, Florida. As the only command of its kind in the DOD, NECE not only provides operational support and training, but is also responsible for testing and evaluating novel pesticide application technology and techniques for efficacy and military applicability. To accomplish this mission, NECE has cultivated collaborative relationships with a variety of civilian and government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service laboratories in Gainesville, Florida and College Station, Texas, and universities.

2005 Air Force Spraying Missions in the Aftermath of Hurricanes

Humanitarian Spray Mission Katrina Rita

The U.S. Air Force has a long history of aerial applications of pesticides to fulfill a variety of missions during wartime. But these spray missions also include humanitarian relief after natural disasters, where harmful and pest insects breed, infest, and infect. In 2005, pilots, navigators, spray operators/ loadmasters, and military entomologists conducted such an aerial spray mission in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Air Force’s 910th Airlift Wing from Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, treated 2,880,662 acres over Louisiana and Texas to control mosquitoes and filth flies after the hurricanes. That mission is the largest aerial spray mission ever conducted under Air Force Reserve Command.

2018 MHS Inaugural Bug Week Campaign

MHS Bug Week

We bug out every year! In 2018, the Military Health System hosted its first Bug Week campaign. Bug Week educates our audiences in a fun and creative way about the role of bugs in their health and safety, including prevention of bug-borne illnesses and treatment options. Through several events, articles, and fun social media content, Bug Week is an opportunity to engage with all MHS beneficiaries and stakeholders!

2019 Inaugural Bugapalooza Celebration

Bugapalooza

Inspired by the Military Health System’s inaugural Bug Week Campaign, the National Museum of Health and Medicine hosted its first Bugapalooza. Bugapalooza is a family-friendly event that helps raise awareness of the research dedicated to the prevention and treatment of bug-borne illness, as well as showcase the benefits and dangers of certain bugs. During the event, the museum hosts educational partners who engage audiences with stations that focus on bug species and safety, and topics related to entomological research. And now, Bug Week begins each year with Bugapalooza!

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Last Updated: July 11, 2023
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