Ronald Ross, by Edwin R. Nye et al | Literature Review

I am amazed that this de-accessioned library book has had no one to loan it in who knows how long it’s been in the library system. They certainly took for granted this legendary figure in medical history. It looks like I am the only one who managed to fingerprint the glossy cover and crinkle the fringes of the pages.


This biography talks about the malariologist Ronald Ross throughout his life, relationships, accomplishments, and interests and proficiencies.


A major theme throughout the biography is how the pursuit of scientific discoveries does not happen ex nihilo, rather it is through the process of inter-connectivity of anatomies that comes to a conclusion that sheds light on the previous research conducted. In Ross’ case, he discovered that the malaria that develops within the female mosquitoes, whereas previously his and his mentor Dr. Patrick Manson’s research relied on mosquitoes that were either male or were still larvae.

Place is a major factor in determining Ross’ access to his own scientific research, since he has been to many parts of the British Empire, whether in India, Mauritius, or Liverpool. In Liverpool, he had to face a bureaucracy within the education system that comprised of a major part of the biography. In the colonies, on the other hand, that was where he was able to assume leadership over any malaria cases.

Ross was always contentious with authority in pursuit of his own passions. It started with his father, who did not approve of his desire to become an artist; though Ross did write poetry on the side of his surgeon and scientific work. He also had to face having to do surgeon work by the British military which interrupted his research into how mosquitoes were able to contract malaria. There were also rampant controversies between himself and the Liverpool education system when he was a part of it. The middle chapter describes relentless letters of correspondence, showing how much bitterness there was in either the appointment of other figures or whoever took the credit for discovering the link between malaria and mosquitoes. As for the study that attempted to prove his theory, Ross was incredibly offended since it did not take into consideration that long-term effects of mosquito habitation in the area where the study took place.

As for his poetry, he always provided inspiration from his scientific pursuits into his writing. He especially pursued those interests in writing novels while he was in India. Though, his writing was described by many people as being archaic, due to the fact that he spent his childhood reading works one hundred years before his time.

However, Ross does employ an interdisciplinary approach to malaria. Not only was he a creative writer, but also a mathematical hobbyist. Because of this in-depth knowledge of math and statistics, Ross was able to formulate the concept of pathometry, which calculates the infectivity of a specific population living in a specific area in a specific amount of times. This would become incredibly useful in malariology, since it could prevent any outbreaks (however in the Third World there are issues involving people’s access to medical technology).

Within the biography, experience becomes an important decider of Ross’ career. Because Manson was experienced in his field, he had the intuition to see the potential within Ross to complete his research. Another such case was when examining mosquitoes through a microscope was almost impossible, though Ross managed to practice by dissecting cockroaches and other insects aboard a ship. This protyposymbiosis was what enabled Ross to develop experience in how to use the microscope no matter how limiting it was during the time. Eventually, he developed his own brand of microscope which can narrow down even deeper to any parasites.

Historical Context

Technology was stifling to Ross’ progress, since the biographers note how the microscope was not as narrowed down as it was when the biography was written. Not only were the lenses short, they would get foggy from the humidity of Indian weather.

The biographers make it clear that Ross, like many scientists, followed the footsteps of Louis Pasteur, who discovered malaria. Though it was still murky at the time Ross was a medical student where exactly malaria came from. It was originally believed that it came from salty waters, though Manson discovered that there was a link between mosquitoes and malaria, he did not pursue it further and let Ross finish his research–and even take credit for it.

As for World War I, Ross was instrumental in overseeing the prevention and curing of malaria among Indian troops. Although doctors were important in the military, they served a different function, namely to be surgeons as a priority. Nonetheless, Ross was able to advance in his career because of a botanist who was with him who actively supported his theory.

Ronald Ross

Since he spent much of his life researching and combating malaria, Ross develop friendships and rivalries with many people in academia and the military. He actively supported the promotions of people who supported his theory, while also trying his best to distance himself from any organization or individual who did not give him adequate credit.

However, as much of an interesting polymath as he was, he was also a product of his time. Since he spent much of his life in India, he, of course, had racist views about how white people were superior to Indians.

Although he is considered an instrumental part of malariology, he himself was only trained as a medical professional, not as a scientist. So that ethos stifled Ross’ contribution to medical science, even though he had treated victims of malaria. What did help him was his connections with scientists and higher officials who agreed with him.

Writing Style

Since there is a lot of scientific terminology in this biography, Nye and Gibson were kind enough to provide a chapter dedicated to explaining where and how malaria is contracted.

Real World Application

What can be learned from Ross’ life story is the issue of being steadfast in one’s own mission statement in life. In Ross’ case, it involved fighting malaria but also the bureaucracies that stifled his research. Being relentless would also inspire people who agree to actively pursue the theory that Ross formulated.

Connections provide an incredibly important moral that this biography has to offer, since Ross advanced in his career as a contributor to malariology despite not being a scientist. So, it would be wise to take advantage of any sticky, unsavory situation because you never know what kinds of people you might meet. You might even meet people who agree with you.

As for his contribution to medical science, it is a testament that interdisciplinary studies can provide major breakthroughs in discoveries, because they can spot gaps that no one in any specialized field can. The biography states that had Ross been alive at the time the biography was written, he would have become a biostatistician. Entire professions can be created based on the steadfastness of any polymath.

Suggest This To…

  • Any medical student who takes an interest in malariology. I am not a science, math, nor medical person, so I would need to read this biography twice in order to fully grasp the connections and cycles that lead to malaria outbreaks.
  • As for anyone else, I would say that if there is anyone interested in seeing how patterns are discovered in any field not just medical science, then Ross’ biography should be a recommendation.

Nye, Edwin R. and Mary E. Gibson. “Ronald Ross: Malariologist and Polymath: A Biography.” St. Martin’s Press. 1997.

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