Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

‘Are we in England Infested by Parasites?’ Historical reports from the BNA.

Yesterday, in the glorious 27 degree July sunshine, I visited the British Newspaper Archive at their reading rooms in Colindale, North London. After obtaining my newspaper reader pass, I settled down to see what the archive had to offer by way of nineteenth century curiosities and I wasn’t disappointed!

Although my main search was for ‘parasites in the news’, I stumbled – rather haphazardly – across a few unrelated entries that surprised me. The first of which was the publishing of multiple suicide notes (mostly from young women, ill-treated by men). What shocked me, other than the very odd and slightly distressing idea of publishing something so private and obviously meant for their families, was the type of language used. These women writing at the end of the nineteenth century were using the same language, feeling the same emotions and hiding the same anxieties that women use, feel and hide over a hundred years later. It’s not that I’m naïve enough to overlook human nature, or that I think suicide is, by any means, a new phenomenon; I think it’s just the levelling impact of strong emotion that made reading the faded sepia print detailing the deaths of Victorian twenty-somethings an uncomfortably uncanny experience.

Surprise find #2, on a lighter note, was the discovery (in papers like the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1882) of curiously satirical fables. One of which was about a wolf, drinking from a stream, who tried to provoke a nearby lamb, only to get into a series of erroneous conversations to prove his ‘insanity’ so that he wouldn’t be held accountable for later eating said lamb. The moral of this one rather escapes me![1]

And so to parasites! Among the, not insubstantial, accounts of parasites and parasitic diseases, there were a few things I found of particular interest. The first (as I suspected) was the in vogue status of the parasite at the end of the nineteenth century, not only as a signification of colonial anxiety but also as a strong marker of social unrest. The public are conscious of, not only biological parasites, but of parasitism in social, intellectual and political life. Given the social origin of ‘parasite’ this may seem inevitable, however this social parasitism is framed by discourses of evolution and degeneration. ‘There are parasitic peers, bishops, rectors, curates, doctors, school-masters, editors, hedgers, and ditchers, bell-ringers, and beadles, all evading the trouble and risk of independent thought and speech for sordid comfort and small ambitions,’ says Rev. T.W. Holmes in a lecture reprinted in the Sheffield Independent in 1887. This demonstrates the infiltration of ‘parasites’ to all aspects of society. Among these parasites he identifies the novelist who steals his plots and the lecturer who doesn’t acknowledge the source of his quotations and has ‘bad framework’ bulging with the ‘stolen thoughts of other men, and resembling a very thin chicken very badly stuffed.’[2]

This and similar reports concentrate on the dangers of parasitic lifestyles, for the parasite and the host. The Leicester Chronicle of 1883 further links the biological and the social by ranking man among well-known parasites: ‘The parasite may be a plant, an animal, a man, a class, a society, a church or a nation. The mistletoe is parasitic on the oak or apple tree; the thread-worm on animals; the tapeworm on man; man, on other men.[3] The piece goes on to warn of degeneration: ‘having nothing to do, the power of doing eventually departs. Limbs shrivel up, organs disappear, activity becomes almost extinct. The creature sinks in the scale of life as much in some cases as if a crab were to degenerate into a jellyfish.’ Fears of social behaviour directly affecting physiology stems from the anxiety surrounding Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, a concept explored in works like H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine published in 1895. In Wells’ novella the exploitative relationship between the educated and working classes evolves into a complicated parasitic relationship between two degenerate species with man as their common ancestor. Wells’ even suggests that society is heading that way in 1895 with the working classes barely ever seeing the light of day and so primed to become their subterranean Morlock descendants.

Other references to parasites included the use of parasitic diseases to excuse immoral behaviour: ‘During the day he drank four or five bottles of champagne. “If I had not done so” he said, “I should have died of Malaria.”[4] And the farrago of miracle cures for various diseases, ‘Collins’ disinfecting powder’ one advert boasts ‘is of more worth than the united labours of Boards of Health, Sanatory Inspectors, Health committees, Commissioners of sewers &e., &e.,&e., all put together’ and will make even the most sordid and unsanitary conditions smell ‘as sweet as a lady’s dressing room!’ Quite a feat!

[1] Editor, ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (Mon 2nd Jan. 1882)

[2] The Rev. T.W. Holmes, ‘The Political Parasite’ lecture reprinted in The Sheffield Independent (Wed 30th Nov. 1887)

[3] Editor, ‘Parasites’ Leicester Chronicle (Sat 17th  Nov. 1883)

[4] Editor, ‘The Superintendent’s Sad Story’ Sheffield Evening Herald (Fri 28th Aug. 1903)  

An extraordinary Instinct for the Horrible.

My research concerns things generally best not talked about at the dinner table (a resounding irony I will elaborate on later). From Trypanosomiasis to Ticks, parasites come in all forms but usually they’re unsavoury. At a recent paper I gave, concerning the figure of the parasite in contemporary popular culture, I was jocularly informed that my meagre warning that ‘there are some pretty gruesome pictures coming up’ was not warning enough.

John Ruskin writing in the nineteenth century has a very similar attitude toward parasites, he writes deprecatingly of ‘this extraordinary instinct for the horrible, developing itself at present in the English mind […] so that sensation must be got out of death, or darkness, or frightfulness.’ This instinct for the horrible describes a duality that often surrounds the literary parasite. Examples can be found in figures like Dracula who both mesmerises and disgusts his victims, or Miss Penclosa in Conan Doyle’s The Parasite, who causes Prof. Gilroy to act as if besotted, whilst internally sickened by the thought of her. Further examples can be found in Mr Hyde who both intrigues and frightens Dr Jekyll; even the tentacular Martians in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds cultivate fierce scientific intrigue.

Clarify and Classify – what’s in a name?

Parasite, n. a person who lives at the expense of another, or of society in general; esp. (in early use) a person who obtains the hospitality or patronage of the wealthy or powerful by obsequiousness and flattery; (in later use, a person whose behaviour resembles that of a plant or animal parasite; a sponger. Chiefly derogatory.[1]

Parasite, originally from the greek parasitos – one who eats at the table of another – was historically a positive name bestowed on temple assistants who helped to select the sacred grain for religious ceremonies. It was a vocation and a privilege.  As the vocation evolved (forgive the pun) parasites would receive free meals in exchange for entertainment at dinner parties as companions to the rich. Greek comic tradition made a caricature of the parasite, emphasizing their ambitions for free meals and their willingness to do anything to get them.

(A)  Oh Stratius, dost thou love me?

(B)  Aye, I do.  More than my father, for he does not feed me;

But you do give the best of dinners daily.

(A)  And do you pray the gods that I may live?

(B)  No doubt I do; for how should I myself
Live if misfortune happened unto you?[2]

The word parasite then came to apply to anyone who exploited the wealthy or flattered their way into dinner invitations. Over time the term was appropriated by botanists and naturalists – eventually biologists – and applied to the natural world. At first organisms were described as ‘parasite-like’ or had ‘parasitical habits’ but slowly the word ‘parasite’ took on a biological meaning in its own right, one which would come to eclipse the original.

Thus, quite naturally, biological parasites are endowed with human attributes, anthropomorphised and given agency, but this was a two-way dialogue for the historical parasite too came to take on attributes of the biological. This is represented in the composite literary figure, which is both social and biological. The literary parasite often has the flattery and obsequiousness of the historical parasite whilst possessing the somatically destructive influences of its biological counterpart. Figures like Count Dracula, Miss Penclosa and Mr Hyde harm their hosts materially and physically, taking away not just their health, but their morality, reputation, money and even threaten the very culture in which they live. The figure of the parasite is an abject figure, cast out to reflect the incongruous aspects of society.

Propagating notions of disease and degradation associated with their place in the natural hierarchy, the parasite also represents social anxiety concerning overpopulation, social mobility and colonial expansion. Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided much of the anxiety that pervades the fiction of the fin-de-siècle; ‘the structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, which then comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys.’[3] This interconnectedness emphasized the interdependence of the struggle; the resemblance ‘is obvious in the structure of the teeth and talons of the tiger; and in that of the legs and claws of the parasite which clings to the hair on the tiger’s body’.[4] The positing of the parasite and predator side by side in the natural hierarchy is problematic. Darwin’s theory suggested that it wasn’t the big and strong that necessarily survived, but the best adapted, providing the parasite with unprecedented power as a locus of anxiety.

SEM photo of a Hookworm – I think he’s rather cute!

[1] ‘Parasite’ OED Online (2012) [accessed May 2012]

[2] C. D. Yonge, trans. (1854) Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists Book Six (circa. 3rd Century AD) pp 234-248 [accessed May 2012]

[3] Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)p138

[4] ibid. p139

Amphibious Monsters and the Great Moon Hoax.

After a not insubstantial break I have finally composed another post for your perusal – the theme this time is something to do with monstrousness and nineteenth-century imagination.

On reading Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, I was struck by a passage concerning the fossil remains of dinosaurs:

The animal to which the name ichthyosaurus has been given, was as
long as a young whale, and it was fitted for living in the water,
though breathing the atmosphere.  It had the vertebral column and
general bodily form of a fish, but to that were added the head and
breast-bone of a lizard, and the paddles of the whale tribes.  The
beak, moreover, was that of a porpoise, and the teeth were those of a
crocodile.  It must have been a most destructive creature to the fish
of those early seas.[1]

What Chambers describes here is a monstrous aquatic chimera; straddling definition as part fish, part reptile (ichthyosaurus literally meaning fish-lizard) the ichthyosaurus represents a candidate for science fiction. In a somewhat dismissive review, Francis Bowen refers to such creatures as ‘amphibious monsters’.[2] Chambers’ successive linear development theory, from animalcules to perfect man, not only posits these monsters as a ‘necessary step’, but also uncomfortably creates an evolutionary link between monsters and man. This very link is a popular source of anxiety in the late nineteenth century, whether as the transitory monster of Jekyll and Hyde, or the degenerated Morlock of The Time Machine.

So I was thinking about this evolutionary monstrousness (largely in relation to parasites – my raison d’être) and I stumbled across what is now one of my favourite anecdotes concerning nineteenth century imagination. In 1835, the New York Sun published a series of hoax news stories[3] in an attempt to boost circulation (it worked!) The stories reported the advancement of a telescope that enabled  the discovery of life on the moon. Falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, the series depicted a colourful landscape with white beaches, hills topped with quartz crystals, glades studded with vermillion amethysts, a bay of rainbows, lunar palm trees, unicorns, goats, biped beavers, and bat people. There were even ‘strange amphibious spherical creatures’ that rolled around the pebble beach.

The author then begins a description with this curious sentence: ‘The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster.’ I was surprised by the relatively tame description that followed. The ‘monster’ was described as a bluish creature like a goat or an antelope with a perpendicular horn and beard. It was agile and ran at great speed, ‘springing from the green turf with all the unaccountable antics of a young lamb or kitten.’ The agility of a kitten hardly strikes fear into my heart and the implication of a monstrous hybrid loses gravitas in light of the winged bat hominids whose cultural practices are described at length. Indeed even the authors concede that the kittenish behaviour of ‘this beautiful creature afforded [them] the most exquisite amusement’. The article goes on to describe intelligent creatures similar to human beings (but with wings) and even identifies two races of this new species, which appear to possess language and notions of etiquette. They build temples, are vegetarian and share all they have – a utopian vision. The authors even go as far as to say:

The universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures, and the
apparent absence of every carnivorous or ferocious creatures, gave us the
most refined pleasure, and doubly endeared to us this lovely nocturnal
companion of our larger, but less favored world.

The Great Moon Hoax, New York Sun Lithograph (1835)

Though perhaps little more than a really good read, the series does demonstrate the evolutionarily monstrous, made good. The Derridean notion of ‘turning them into pets’[4] holds true and dispels the myth that an alternate path of evolution would produce anarchy. As the theme of the ‘monstrousness’ seems in conference vogue this year (themes for two I’ve been to already) I hope I’ll hear more about this in September when I present a paper on the fictional pandemic at the 10th global conference for ‘Monsters and the Monstrous’.


My paper will be entitled: Death, Disease and Discontent: The Monstrous Reign of the Super-Virus.

[EDIT: The Great Moon Hoax is mentioned by Augustus de Morgan in A Budget of Paradoxes p 337. <> with details about circulation, publication, speculations on the author and similarity to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Adventures of Hans Pfaal’.]

[1] Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) transcribed from the John Churchhill Edition. e-book #7116 Project Gutenberg (Release Date: 2004)

[2] Francis Bowen, ‘A Theory of Creation. A Review of “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” (Boston: Otis, Broader and Company, 1845) e-book #24648 Project Gutenberg (Release Date: 2008)

[4] ‘Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say “here are our monsters” without immediately turning the monsters into pets.’

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