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In 1943, Allied forces in recently liberated Naples were confronted with an outbreak of louse-borne typhus. The established Anglo-American narrative of that epidemic is a triumphant story of effective action that controlled the disease with unprecedented speed and success, aided by the pioneering use of the pesticide DDT. Rather than retell that tale, this article discusses why the outbreak and its ending are largely absent from Italian accounts of wartime Naples. Drawing on Italian sources and contemporary Allied ones, it argues that this absence speaks powerfully to the realities of life for Neapolitans at the time. These realities included the likelihood that the epidemic left most people unscathed, and the presence of additional challenges that made survival in the city perilous. Illustrating how tangled events (and even non-events) can be fashioned into simplistic but meaningful frameworks according to the perspective and priorities of the observer, the article also demonstrates how methods (in this case, delousing with insecticide) that were later proclaimed as crucial in ending an epidemic can be viewed very differently by populations required to comply with them, especially when the disease's dangers seem remote.

Original publication




Journal article




Brepols Publishers NV

Publication Date





249 - 260