Humans have had a long, complicated history with bugs. Insects haven’t always been “pests” and have, in fact, served as a food source for many great civilizations of the past as well as provided invaluable pollination to plants and crops around the world.
But where did the idea of “pest control” really begin? Bugs weren’t always a nemesis of civilized life and people haven’t always had a can of bug spray around to ward off creepy crawlies. Let’s take a look at the winding history of pest control as it’s led up to today’s culture of extermination.
A Buggy History
The first known mention of insect cohabitation comes from the ancient Babylonians who worshipped a two-winged, fly-like “God of Pestilence.” Clearly people had some indication that insects were related to diseases long before they knew anything about germs or viruses. Tablets from about 2500 B.C., inscribed by a Sumerian doctor, reference a sulfur treatment for itch, now known as a reference to chigger bites.
There are references to all types of insects in the Old Testament of the Bible, among the massive library of Ashurbanipal, and event among pottery from Egypt and Peru. The Romans were known to have a strict code of sanitation regarding everything from water supplies to tenements, but all that more or less went out the window with the Dark Ages.
The Earliest Exterminators
Pest control as a pseudo-science had its roots in the Middle Ages, particularly in the extermination of rats. People were known to use chemical and plant extracts in an attempt to kill the critters and in the 1300s Chaucer actually wrote of a “rattons quell,” meaning “rats kill.”
Public health didn’t really come back into vogue until the Black Plague had decimated the population. In the late 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I instituted a series of regulations meant to sanitize public spaces and insects became increasingly linked with filth, waste and garbage. Barbers in direct contact with human hair were often tasked with picking out lice and other insects that spread from person to person.
By the late 1800s, Europe had an entire fleet of “rat catchers” who used all kinds of techniques – from chemicals to dogs – to snuff out the rodents. The first official pest control company was called Tiffon and Son and was formed sometime around 1695. Eventually, European pest professionals migrated to America in the late 19th century, bringing with them extensive knowledge.
Insecticide and Pesticide Origins
There are actually dozens of mentions of pesticide-like compounds being used for thousands of years of human history. Red squill, a popular rat poison in the first millennium B.C. was followed by arsenic in 1250 A.D. and by the 1800s everything from copper to nicotine to fluorides were being used to deter bugs.
This “first generation” of pesticides was notoriously dangerous and typically required exterminators to use large amounts of various compounds to kill rodents and pests. WWII sparked the development of “second generation” pesticides that were substantially safer, if not completely safe for human use (think: DDT).
The 1970s were a golden age in pest control. The FDA became increasingly involved with regulating and approving pesticide compounds and pest professionals were then required to be licensed and certified to practice, at least within the U.S. All these regulations have led us to where pest control remains today. Green initiatives, “integrated pest management,” and safer, chemically-tested pesticides are all part of the 21st century’s pest management arsenal and are regularly used by exterminators all over the world.