Victorian Parasites

A blog about Science, History, and Popular Culture

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

The Story of Mistletoe: A Christmas Parasite.

It’s that time of year again, full of food and cheer and deep-rooted traditions. A kiss under the mistletoe will result in marriage, fertility, true love…and yet this romantic Christmas symbol is in fact – you guessed it – a parasite. Viscum album is the name of the European mistletoe that parasitizes host trees, particularly the Oak tree, using the host water and nutrients to aid its own growth. However the leaves do perform photosynthesis and so it is considered a hemi-parasite, cultivating some of its own energy.

The Druids were the first to lionise the mistletoe, revering it for its alleged healing properties; the ever-green colour of the plant led them to associate it with fertility and vitality. In fact its success as a parasite led them to believe that, thriving as it did on otherwise barren and bare tree limbs, it had some sacred property, compounding its position as a potent symbol of fertility.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it made its way into our homes as Christmas decoration, its kissing connotations referenced in Dicken’s The Pickwick Papers in 1836. This tradition may have come from a Norse myth involving Frigga, the goddess of Love and Marriage, whose son Baldur was killed by a spear of mistletoe. Some versions say that the tears she shed over her son changed the mistletoe’s red berries to white and brought him back to life. Frigga then reversed the bad reputation of the mistletoe by kissing everyone who walked beneath it in gratitude. Others simply suggest that the Gods kissed under the mistletoe in remembrance. This story also alludes to the dangers of mistletoe, the berries of which can be poisonous!

Christmas Cracker Bonus Parasite

On the subject of Christmas parasites, my little sister made me one for Christmas. Meet Ancylostoma duodenale, the human Hookworm parasite.


This charismatic-looking beastie is a parasitic nematode with a mammalian definitive host. It has a free-living stage where it dwells in the soil; it will burrow through the skin between the toes of anyone who walks barefoot, and from thence enter into the bloodstream. Migrating to the lungs, the larvae are then coughed up and swallowed into the small intestine where they develop into adults. Yummy!


‘Hookworm’ PubMed Health online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

‘Mistletoe: A Parasite with Kissing Powers’ Chron online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

‘Parasites and Health: Hookworms’ DPDx online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

‘The Death of Baldur’ Classic Literature online at:

‘What’s the deal with mistletoe?’ Slate online at: [accessed 27th Dec 2012]

And this post wouldn’t be complete without a gruesome video!

Eastern Religion versus Western Science: Thoughts on Not Eating Cows and Re-writing Histories

Much of we might take to be ‘Western’ science, it now seems, emerged out of a dialogue—albeit often an unequal one—between different traditions, Indian and European.[1]

As part of my PhD research training, I audit a Medical History masters seminar once a week; this is somewhat of a whistle-stop introduction to writing histories of medicine. This week’s seminar was about the development of colonial medicine in India – a topic intimately related to my research.

The discussion centred largely on an idea of traditional Indian practices and the ways in which they complimented, opposed, or collaborated with developing notions of Imperial medical science. Did the onus placed on religion weaken medicine in the eyes of the British? Strong religious faith certainly influenced the types of profession considered proper to indigenous people, determined the relative confidence in certain medical practices and shaped their approaches to health and the body.

We talked a lot of about the development of Imperial medicine against the backdrop of Indian cultural heritage, a heritage that attached religious significance to healing, in stark contrast to Europe’s more secular outlook in the nineteenth century. Part of this discussion concerned Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that heavily influences Buddhism and latent cultural beliefs concerning religious and moral practices. Jainism teaches complete non-violence and upholds that no living thing should be harmed or caused suffering. Coming from my tropical medicine perspective, I would love to explore the implications this might have had for parasitic infections. If a region had a large Jain population who all eschew the killing of insects, many of which, like the mosquito, are vectors of parasitic diseases, are they more likely to become infected with these diseases? On the other hand many practicing Jains would cover their faces or wear masks to ensure that they did not harm insects by breathing them in! If they were adequately covered, would this reduce exposure to insect bites and thus instances of parasitic infection?

Another related intrigue is the switching by Brahmins from animal sacrifice and meat consumption to vegetarianism under the influence of these Jainist teachings. Considering the link between the consumption of undercooked meat and tapeworm infestation, I would be interested to note whether a vegetarian diet reduced instances of this and associated diseases. The sacred position of the cow in Hinduism, and consequent refusal to eat beef, could have impacted on instances of taenia saginata, the beef tapeworm. Perhaps this even accounts for the global spread of taeniasis (a disease caused by tapeworm infestations). Taeniasis caused by beef tapeworm (as opposed to pork tapeworm) occurs particularly in Eastern Europe, Russia, Eastern Africa and Latin America; [2] perhaps instances are low in India due to the tapeworm’s life cycle being disrupted by the would-be definitive host (humans) not eating the intermediate host (cattle). Is this an instance of religious practices being formed in part by cultural pragmatism?


(Re)Writing Histories

Traditionally in histories of science, Indian medicine was posited as ‘backward’ and unscientific, their holistic approach relegated to superstitious naivety. Imperial measures introduced European approaches that superseded Indian medical practices. However, upon reflection, these practices were not so different from late eighteenth-century western medicine, and increasingly, modern histories suggest that they represent precursors to more ‘scientific’ outlooks. Indeed they already had raw versions of western specialisms in the form of barber surgeons, potters who set bones, nomadic eye doctors who removed cataracts, specialists dealing with sword wounds, variolation as a less-well developed version of inoculation, and primitive forms of gynaecology. 

In the 1970s Johnson and Robbins postulated two ideal types of scientific research: collegiate-controlled which was said to produce more autonomous disciplines, involve technical resources and produce universal theoretical knowledge, and patron-controlled which was said to involve more isolated and local disciplines, and produce problem-based or empirical knowledge. A specialism might transform from patron to collegiate-controlled as it became more established and widely accepted. [3] The similarity between early nineteenth century Indian medicine and eighteenth century European medicine suggests that Indian medicine had the potential to evolve in line with western advances; Christopher Bayly makes an interesting point when he highlights his unease with the vehement rejection of Indian humoral medicine by Europeans, given that they had only recently themselves abandoned Aristotelian humoral notions in favour of systemic approaches.[4] The bid to maintain authority in all spheres of knowledge stems from the use of imperial medicine as a colonizing tool – particularly in light of its relations to politics and the military. Perhaps this undermining of Indian medicine stemmed from an anxiety about the authority of European knowledge in the face of an increasingly global world.

NB. A fun example of Eastern trailblazing comes from impromptu surgery practices done to restore noses that had been cut off for punishment. (Cutting off the tip of the nose was a common punishment, especially for women, to indicate dishonour or disgrace). The restorative procedure was usually performed by low caste muslims due to the associations with bodily fluids and was not considered a high class profession, but represents a distinct precursor to modern-day practices of cosmetic surgery in the western world!

[1] Mark Harrison, ‘Social History of Science in Colonial India. Themes in Indian History (review)’ Journal of Social History 43(2009)1 pp238-240.

[2] ‘Taeniasis’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [accessed Dec 2012]

[3] Michael Worboys, ‘Manson, Ross and colonial medical policy: tropical medicine in London and Liverpool, 1899-1914’ Disease, Medicine and Empire: Perspectives on Western Medicine and the Experience of European Expansion (ed.) Roy McLeod (London: Routledge, 1988)

[4] C. A. Bayly, ‘Colonial controversies: Astronomers and Physicians’ Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India 1780-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

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