Everything I Could Buy on eBayTM about Malaria

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 27 July 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:225

A Wellcome Trust exhibition at the TwoTen Gallery, 210 Euston Road, London NW1, until 27 September 2002. Admission free

  1. Claire McKenna (cmckenna{at}, BMJ Clegg scholar

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    Short of cash? Then why not sell your soul? The going rate for souls, almost new, in good condition, is £11.61 on eBay, the world's largest online auction house. So diverse are the items on sale that NASA has recently admitted to searching eBay for replacement computer parts for the space shuttle programme. Now Canadian artist Bill Burns has joined the devotees of the auction house and has amassed an eclectic and eccentric cornucopia of items relating to malaria for this Wellcome Trust exhibition.

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    Henry Wellcome's model floating Nile laboratory

    The items on display amount to a veritable pocket history of malaria and malaria prevention and treatment programmes in the 20th century. One can see model crop dusters designed to spray DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloromethane), stamps from around the world featuring malaria themes, maps circa 1960 of African malarial regions, as well as an LP record by the German all-girl punk band Malaria. Some of the exhibits are fascinating, such as United States government publications entitled Insects and the War and rations given to US troops during the Vietnam conflict. There are also more prosaic items, such as bottles of tonic water from the 1950s (relevant because tonic water contains quinine, the mainstay of early malaria treatment).

    Also on display is an original colour pamphlet illustrated by American cartoonist Dr Seuss, who is famed for children's books such as the Cat in the Hatseries. The pamphlet, called This is Ann(a reference to the Anopheles mosquito, which transmits malaria), was produced by the United States War Department in 1943 for distribution to troops during the second world war. Among advice given was: “Ann moves around at night, anytime from dusk to sunrise (a real party gal), and she's got a thirst. No whisky, gin, beer, or rum coke for Ann … she drinks blood.” Limited edition reproductions of the booklet are available free to all visitors to the exhibition.

    Bill Burns also purchased two fascinating films relating to malaria. The first, DDT versus Malaria: A Successful Experiment in Malaria Control by the Kenya Medical Department, records a campaign to control an epidemic of malaria in a tribal reserve in northwestern Kenya in the 1960s. It is amazing to watch this film with the gift of hindsight, as it shows the colonial government trying to convince the locals that it was harmless to spray their huts with DDT. The film is also an interesting exposé of colonialism in Kenya. At one point, a suitably repentant village elder who had opposed the DDT spraying is pictured bringing his child sick with malaria to the local hospital, to offer his support to the DDT campaign. In his best cut-glass BBC World Service English, the narrator announces: “Science needs the help of men like him if the battle against malaria is to be won.”

    The second film on display, Private SNAFU versus Malaria Mike, was made by Warner Brothers in 1944. The US military commissioned Warner Brothers to produce a series of cartoons to educate and entertain soldiers in the second world war. This film parodies its protagonist, the hapless Private SNAFU (a military acronym meaning Situation Normal All F***** Up), who provides a model of how soldiers were not supposed to behave.

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    “She can knock you flat for keeps

    The Wellcome Trust is a major funder of the malaria genome project, which aims to map the 14 chromosomes of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. Burns has created a large model of the malaria parasite specifically for the exhibition.

    Material from the Wellcome Trust's own collection is also included in the exhibition, including a model of trust founder Henry Wellcome's 1907 floating Nile laboratory and a large (circa 1915) wax model of the mosquito Anopheles gambiae.

    “Everything I Could Buy on eBay about Malaria (for $837.17)” is not an extensive exhibition but it is a unique way to spend half an hour. This publication does not accept liability for any phials of blood, spare parts, or souls that may be lost or sold as a consequence of this review.