Israel Kligler and the eradication of malaria in Palestine

Mark Twain visited Palestine in 1867 and in his book “Innocents abroad” described it as a “desolate country”.  He said one could ride for a whole day and not see a single inhabitant and those that one did see were extremely poor and emaciated. The main cause for this condition was MALARIA.  In 1917, in a survey of Palestine and its suitability for colonization, Dr. E.G. Masterman in a report to the Royal Geographical Society stated “Palestine suffers severely from that great scourge of the tropics – malaria.”   At the beginning of the British Mandate (1918-48) the density of population in Palestine was only ca. 29 persons per sq km, due mainly to the depredations of malaria.  The question is how was malaria eradicated in Palestine that allowed the huge growth in both the Arab and Jewish populations, so that today the density of population is ca. 400 per sq km, a factor of 14 more!

This story was told by Dr. Don Silverberg in an excellent and informative lecture at AACI Netanya, based to a large extent on the blog entitled “MalariaWorld” published on-line by Anton Alexander of London.   It is a fascinating story that shows how the Zionist initiative to settle the Holy Land required overcoming the scourge of malaria and in doing so saved millions of lives, not only for the Jews of Israel but for all mankind.  The principal actor in this drama was Dr. Israel Kligler, a relatively obscure man whose story deserves to be widely known.

Israel Kligler was born in 1888 in Galicia and moved to the USA in 1901.  He was educated at Columbia University and became a bacteriologist.  Later he joined the Rockefeller Inst. and was involved in the eradication of yellow fever in Panama, that allowed the construction of the Panama Canal.   In 1921 Israel Kligler moved to Palestine as part of the re-settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel.   The re-settlement of Palestine by the Jews had hit a major obstacle, namely the scourge of malaria, that in some settlements such as Hadera, Hulda, Gedera and Petach Tikva, had killed 50% of the Jewish pioneers and had caused them to be abandoned.  Kligler was well aware of the problem of malaria, not only did it kill, but it caused sufferers to become debilitated and unable to work.  Kligler was asked by the Zionist Executive to advise them on how to overcome the problem of malaria in Palestine.

Sir Ronald Ross had discovered the connection between malaria and the anopheles mosquito in 1897, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1902, and the connection between the breeding of mosquitoes and stagnant water was known.  But, the attempts at drainage under the Mandate were very limited.   Kligler insisted that all stagnant water be drained, and implemented extensive drainage projects supported by the Zionist organizations to drain the swamps, including removing even pools inside tires as well as on the ground.   But, he knew that this was not enough, neither was the use of netting, nor the planting of 400,000 Eucalyptus trees to drain the swamps.   He experimented with various substances, including kerosene to spray the water surface to kill off the mosquito larvae.  Finally he used a substance called Paris Green, that was a combination of arsenic and cooper, and this worked very effectively, killing almost all of the larvae.  He tested this method in several areas and it was very successful in eradicating the mosquitoes and the larvae.  He also introduced certain species of fish that do the same thing and this is still used today.

Kligler wrote a progress report on his success in 1923 and in 1925 the Malaria Commission of the League of Nations visited Palestine to see the results for themselves.  They were so impressed that they adopted his methods world-wide, that led to the eradication of malaria in many parts of the world saving innumerable lives.  But, Palestine was the first region where malaria was totally eradicated through the efforts of Dr. Kligler.  As much as anyone else he deserves to be honored as one of those individuals whose efforts enabled the establishment of the State of Israel.


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