Bates, Marston

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(b. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 23 July 1906; d. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 3 April 1974)

ecology, epidemiology

Marston Bates’s career as an ecologist of diverse experience fell into two periods. From 1928 to 1948 his entomological and ecological researches were novel in bringing ecological field and laboratory methods into the study of epidemic diseases, and he made fundamental discoveries about the ecology of the mosquito vectors of malaria and yellow fever. In the second period, 1948–1970, he turned to analysis of broad environmental and social problems, with the library as his research site, and wrote about human ecology, as well as natural history. He was an author of talent who applied ecological principles in iconoclastic analyses of modern problems and attitudes. Bates’s writing and his effective and popular teaching took precedence over field research in this second period. Despite the success of his books, some ecologists dismissed his later work as superficial or uncritical. Because of his literary popularity, however, his was an effective public voice for the application of ecology to environmental problems and the management of resources.

The only child of Glenn F. and Amy Mabel (Button) Bates, he grew up in Florida, where his father was a horticulturist of exotic plants. Attracted to natural history from adolescence. Bates studied biology at the University of Florida (B.S., 1927) and immediately took a job that would take him to tropical America. As an entomologist from 1928 to 1931 for the Servicio Técnico de Cooperaciόn Agricola, part of the United Fruit Company, he performed and directed ecological researches on insects affecting banana and coffee plantations in Honduras and Guatemala. In 1931 he entered Harvard University, Field research on Caribbean islands yielded a number of publications on the distribution, ecology, and taxonomy of insects, and he took the A.M. (1933) and Ph.D. (1934). His thesis on the butterflies of Cuba analyzed their taxonomy, life histories, and biogeographical relations. A few months after becoming an assistant in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, Bates joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s malaria investigations in Albania.

With a laboratory at Tirana, the foundation’s international health division had begun to study the biology of the mosquito vectors of endemic malaria. Bates formally joined the staff in 1937. His mosquito work in Albania was characteristic of his research strategy, combining various approaches to produce ecological observations on distribution and seasonality, behavioral experiments on mating and egg laying, genetics of the various strains, techniques for rearing mosquitoes, and determinations of taxonomic distinctions. Out of this novel mixture he was able to produce what he called the natural history of disease, by which he meant a coherent picture of the relations among mosquito vector, environmental conditions, and incidence of the human disease. This was essential for a strategy of control for malaria.

Bates finished this project in 1939 and married Nancy Bell Fairchild while on home leave. She was the daughter of the tropical botanist and explorer David Fairchild, a family friend in Florida with connections to prominent families in the Midwest. The couple went to Egypt to establish a malaria research station, which was abandoned when World War II started; they settled instead in Villavicencio, Colombia, where Bates directed the recently established Rockefeller Foundation yellow-fever research station. Nancy Bell Bates, herself a naturalist and often research assistant, bore them three daughters and a son.

Although yellow-fever vaccine had been developed and mosquito control attempted since the early 1900’s, epidemics broke out in South America in the 1930’s. The Villavicencio laboratory was part of the Rockefeller Foundations broad-based efforts to eliminate the disease. Previous control strategies centered on the cities, whose dense populations appeared to be a necessary factor in epidemics. But new outbreaks were in rural areas, and the Villavicencio station was set strategically on the edge of the forest and the sparsely peopled llanos of eastern Colombia. Bates again attacked all aspects of mosquito biology and uncovered the essentials of the transmission cycle of the virus. He found new vectors, Haemagogus mosquitoes, that carried yellow fever among a diverse pool of forest mammal hosts, including humans. The usual cause of outbreaks was the felling of forests, as the reservoir for virus was monkeys and mosquitoes in the upper tree canopy.

Using their ecological and epidemiological findings. Bates’s team set up a diagnosis and treatment program with local doctors and a mosquito control program, and they worked on vaccine. Their efforts were dramatically successful even if Bates did conclude that elimination of the disease would be impossible. He returned to the United States in 1948 and wrote The Natural History of Mosquitoes (1949), Summing up his broad knowledge of mosquito biology and applying it to the ecology of epidemic diseases, the book became a classic text for epidemiology.

It also started his prolific writing career. Assigned by the Rockefeller Foundation to study human demography, Bates served as special assistant to the head of the foundation, then moved in 1952 to a professorship in the University of Michigan zoology department, continuing his study of human ecology. Meanwhile he had published The Nature of Natural History (1950), about scientific methods and their usefulness, and Where Winter Never Comes (1952), an analysis of human ecology in the tropics. The results of his analysis of human population dynamics appeared as The Prevalence of People (1955), an early warning about the ecological consequences of unrestrained population growth, His other most significant books were two analyses of human ecology, The Forest and the Sea (1960) and the textbook Man in Nature (1961).

In all of these books his distinctively broad application of standard ecological principles to human social and environmental problems was presented with a disarming wit, clarity, and apparent nontechnicality. which masked the sometimes sharp divergence from previous scholars’ conclusions. From the complex web of biological interrelations into which humans, as organisms, necessarily had to fit in the world, he argued for the value of diversity in itself and as a key factor in preserving the balance of nature. He also argued for a more rational fitting of cultural practices to environmental conditions. His goal was moral or social wisdom based on a standard of objectivity and scientific knowledge.


I. Origanl Works. Bates summarized the major findings of his more than 100 entomological and epidemiological papers in his thesis. “The Butterflies of Cuba,” in Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College. 78 . no. 2 1935). 63–258, and in The Natural History of Mosquitoes (New York, 1949), His other books were The Nature of Natural History (New York, 1950). Where Winter Never Comes (New York, 1952), The Prevalence of People (New York, 1955). The Darwin Reader, edited with P. S. Humphrey (London, 1957), Coral Island, with D. P. Abbott (New York, 1958). The Forest and the Sea (New York, 1960), Man in Nature (Englewood Cliffs. N.J., 1961), Animal Worlds (New York, 1963), The Land and Wildlife of South America (New York, 1964), Gluttons and Libertines (New York, 1968), and A Jungle in the House (New York, 1970).

His papers, including journals, correspondence, manuscripts, and research materials, are in the Bentley Historical Library (Michigan Historical Collections), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

II. Secondary Literature. Nancy Bell Bates described life and research at the Villavicencio laboratory in East of the Andes and West of Nowhere (New York, 1947).

William C. Kimler