Mosquitoes, Complexity, and Simplicity


Mosquitoes are a part of God’s creation that cause me to ask, “Really? Why?” Although, I’m sure that when I reach my heavenly, final home my attention will be occupied with other things and I will forget that question. For now, though, I ask, “Why?” I was camping this past weekend. Mosquitoes were plentiful and I’m a mosquito magnet. (If you’re outdoors with me on a cool summer evening, just stand a few feet from me and you’ll be protected.)

I also read this weekend about one of the most significant challenges of building the Panama Canal: a species of mosquito called Aedes aegypti (known as Stegomyia fasciata in the early 20th century). This is the mosquito that carried yellow fever, causing the death of many thousands of people during the building of the canal. Interestingly, it is also the species of mosquito that spreads the Zika virus. A mosquito species almost stopped the building of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century and almost stopped the Olympics in the early 21st century.

The discovery that Aedes aegypti was the yellow fever carrier was a decades-long process. It was believed that yellow fever was a “filth and uncleanliness” disease. That was untrue. Some believed it came from noxious gases seeping from the ground. Also untrue. Most people’s attention was focused on airborne transmission process. Few suspected a tiny insect.

Discovery of the truth was further complicated by a very specific and narrow process of events required for yellow fever to be spread: The Aedes aegypti has a travel distance of only a few hundred meters (vs several kilometers for other species). The mosquito must draw blood from a yellow fever patient within the first three days after becoming infected. Then 12-20 days must pass before the yellow fever parasite in the mosquito’s body matures to the point where it can infect another person with another blood draw. The scenario is further complicated by the facts that Aedes aegypti has a lifespan of only 2 to 4 weeks and that the females will lay its eggs in only certain water conditions.

All of these specifics made discovery of the cause of yellow fever very challenging.

Imagine what it would take to track mosquitoes to discover their life cycle and habits. Imagine trying to correlate many seemingly unrelated factors (human habits, mosquito habits, water conditions, time, …) and come upon the precise conditions that cause the propagation of yellow fever. Imagine the challenge of a handful of scientists contradicting the globally accepted science of the day!

The man who was at the epicenter of these discoveries was Dr. William Gorgas. He was an American Army doctor whose life seemed destined to solve this puzzle. His parents met as a result of becoming infected with yellow fever and recovered together, and his Army assignments often put him in places where yellow fever was present.

His solution to yellow fever was simple. Get rid of open, standing water. Open, standing water is the specific breeding ground of Aedes aegypti. In Panama there was plenty of water in open containers. One of the related problems in Panama was the leafcutter ant, an ant that defoliates trees and other vegetation. The standard practice to combat the ant was to place rings of water in open pottery around plants, which the ant would not traverse. However, this was a breeding ground for Aedes aegypti. The ants were so problematic that even the legs of hospital beds were placed in bowls of water—thus bringing the breeding of the yellow fever mosquito closer to the patient!

Open water jugs were also common on Panamanian homes. There were other and many sources of open water and the mosquito population thrived. Hospitals in Panama had shifts of doctors and nurses whose duty was to fan mosquitoes away!

Get rid of the water and you get rid of Aedes aegypti. Get rid of Aedes aegypti and you get rid of yellow fever.

In an essay of tribute to the work of Gorgas, the Mayo brothers wrote,

Men who achieve greatness do not work more complexly than the average many, but more simply…. In dealing with complex problems, with the simplicity natural to him he went directly to the point, unaffected by the confusion of details in which a smaller man would have lost himself.

Leaders deal with complex problems. Complex problems connect to many stakeholders with varied and nuanced priorities. Complex problems draw in competing values and pit them against one another. Complex problems challenge us to examine strategic priorities. Complex problems are complex.

Strategic leaders, though, know how to sort through the myriad, complex details to find the simple principles at the center. They are able to separate signal from noise to listen to the real message.

How? Three disciplines will help you to find the simple inside the complex.

  1. Time and exposure. Gorgas didn’t come across his solution in a day, a week, a month, or a year. It took years of exposure to the problem.
  2. Context and perspective. Gorgas was able to study the problem in multiple contexts and from multiple perspectives, even becoming infected with yellow fever at one of his Army posts.
  3. Broad thinking. The medical community saw no connection between yellow fever and an insect. Gorgas expanded his perception and connected the dots.

Strategic leadership requires finding and focusing on the simple. Many people get paralyzed by the complex. They are defeated by the complex. Leaders make the complex simple and help followers see the way forward.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

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