Ronald Ross: polymath and discoverer

Satish Saroshe, MBBS, MD, CCEBDM, ACMDC
Department of Community Medicine M.G.M Medical College, Indore, India

portrait of Ronald Ross
Sir Ronald Ross
[Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Ronald Ross received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902 for discovering the malaria parasite in the stomach of a mosquito, thereby proving that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes and laying the foundation for future methods of combating the disease. Born in Almora, India, in 1857 to a Scottish general in the Indian Army and his English wife Matilda, Ross was a man of many talents and interests. His expertise spanned many different subjects, medical doctor, poet, novelist, musician, amateur artist, and mathematician. He was a true polymath.

Ross completed his schooling in England. He won a book titled Orbs of Heaven as a prize for mathematics at the age of fourteen, and after two years in the Oxford and Cambridge local examination in drawing, secured the first position at the age of sixteen. In 1874 he began his medical studies at St. Bartholomew’s in London, then entered the Indian Medical Service in 1881. He obtained the Diploma in Public Health from the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, and took a course in bacteriology under Professor E. E. Klein from June 1888 to May 1889.

In 1894 Sir Patrick Manson, then the father of tropical medicine, demonstrated to Ross that malaria parasites were in the blood stream. He told him that mosquitoes were connected with the propagation of malaria and that India was the best place to research this. Ross, determined to make an experimental investigation of this hypothesis, embarked for India in April 1895. Even before his luggage was cleared by customs, the energetic and enthusiastic Ross went straightway looking for malaria patients in Bombay Civil Hospital. In May 1895 he was successful in observing the early stages of the malaria parasite inside the stomach of a mosquito.

In July 1897, in Secunderabad India, he cultured twenty adult “brown” mosquitoes with which he infected a malaria patient who volunteered for the price of eight annas (one anna per blood fed mosquito, anna being a currency denomination in British India). He dissected the stomach tissue of the “brown” (anopheline) mosquito fed four days previously on the malaria patient. He found an “almost perfectly circular” cell from the gut which was certainly not of the mosquito but connected to the parasite. He published. this discovery in the British Medical Journal issue from Dec18, 1897, writing, “To sum up: The [putative malarial] cells appear to be very exceptional; they have as yet been found only in a single species of mosquito fed on malarial blood; they seem to grow between the fourth & fifth day; and they contain the characteristic pigment of the parasite of malaria.” The findings were exceptional considering the simplicity of his research tools, just eight “brown” mosquitoes (anopheles) and a simple bright field microscope. What makes these findings even more exceptional is that they were the result of such persistent and laborious efforts. On August 20, 1897, he confirmed the presence of malaria parasite in gut of mosquito (he termed them as “dappled winged” mosquito).

While working on birds, Ross was able to establish that mosquitoes were the intermediate hosts in avian malaria. In 1898 he made two important discoveries pertaining to malaria transmission, first that the salivary glands are the storage sites of malaria and second these parasites are released from the salivary gland during mosquito biting.

In 1899 Ross resigned from the Indian Medical Service and returned to England to work in the newly established Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. During his stay there he devised many anti-malaria schemes in West Africa, Egypt, Panama, and Mauritius. In 1901 he was elected Fellow of Royal College of Surgeons of England and also of the Royal Society. In 1902 he was appointed a Companion of the most Honourable Order of Bath by King Edward VII and received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for his work on malaria, by which he has shown how it enters the organism and thereby has laid the foundation for successful research on this disease & methods of combating it.” In 1902 he was appointed to a professorship which he retained until 1912.

During the First World War Ross was consultant physician on tropical diseases to the Indian troops and was sent to Alexandria to investigate an outbreak of dysentery.  In 1919 he became consultant physician to the War Office. In 1926, the Prince of Wales opened The Ross Institute & Hospital for Tropical Diseases, and Ross became its director, remaining in that position until his death in 1932.

Ross was not only a medical doctor but also an epidemiologist, a mathematician, an editor, a sanitarian, a poet, a novelist, an amateur musician, a dramatist, a play writer, a composer, and an artist. He wrote extensively on malaria in his book The Prevention of Malaria. He also wrote several novels not related to malaria, the prominent ones being, Spirit of the Storm, Fables & Satires, The Revels of Orsera, The Child of the Ocean, and Lyra Modulatu. In 1923 he published his autobiography, Memoirs, with a Full Account of the Great Malaria Problem & its Solution.

The legacy of Ronald Ross continues, and he is still revered as one of the pioneers of malaria research and public health. To commemorate his discovery, August 20 is celebrated by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine as World Mosquito Day.  The polymath in him is aptly described by the lines of the poem he wrote in August 1897 after discovering the malaria parasite in anopheline mosquitoes fed on a malaria-infected patient….

“…With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.”


Ross, R (1897). “On some Peculiar Pigmented Cells Found in Two Mosquitos Fed on Malarial Blood”. British Medical Journal 2 (1929): 1786–8.

Website:  accessed on 2 January 2016

Website:  accessed on 2 January 2016

Website: accessed on 2 January 2016

Website:  accessed on 2 January 2016

Website:…/ross-facts.html accessed on 2 January 2016

Website: accessed on 2 January 2016

Dr. Satish Saroshe is an assistant professor in the Department of Community Medicine M.G.M Medical College Indore, a government medical college affiliated with Devi Ahilya University Indore. He is also a Sentinel Surveillance monitor for the Government of India National AIDS Control Program and is associated with UNICEF, UNFPA, and WHO through various public health projects. His area of interest is epidemiology and biostatistics.