Victorian Parasites

A blog about Parasites, Science, and Popular Culture

Archive for the tag “parasitology”

Ten Horse-Power Donkeys and “Plain Britons”: Thoughts on Brexit and Nationhood

The 23rd June 2016 represents a pivotal historic moment. The United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union and whether you voted for Brexit or Bremain that decision will define us globally, socially, economically—even academically— in the coming months and years. “Divorcing” from our largest trading partner and long-time political ally will have far-reaching consequences, many of which are currently unknown. Some voted for the Leave campaign in protest against—what they see as—the undemocratic and neoliberal politics of the EU, while others voted on issues of immigration and border control, however both camps were underpinned by a sense of national identity: a desire for “Britishness”, synonymous with a desire for political independence and control.

Amid calls to “make Britain Great again” and criticism of “little Englanders”, I can’t help but turn to the Victorians. Whether we celebrate their industrial and scientific progressiveness or lament their exploitative and imperial philosophies, we can all recognise their visibility in the cultural imagination, and appreciate the significance of their own attempts to negotiate what it meant to be British in an increasingly global world – a recent preoccupation of those interested in #globalvictorians. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the significance of the Victorians and (re)presenting them in contemporary culture, of international competition and rivalry in nineteenth-century science, and of the importance of collaboration, however today I want to talk about Nationhood.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the increasing specialisation of disciplinary science and the birth of new sub-disciplines concerned with situating humans in the natural world: evolutionary biology, psychiatry, neurology, genetics, bacteriology, immunology, and haematology, represent just a few of these. My research focus (and the subject of my PhD) provides another example of this specialisation. Parasitology—the study of parasites and parasitic disease—took on new significance in the late nineteenth century in light of Britain’s imperial expansion and desire to colonise more of the world. One obstacle to this imperial project was the imposition of tropical parasitic disease, which was increasingly being registered in the bodies of British missionaries, soldiers, and traders returning from the colonies.


[Image source:]

In order to legitimise the claims of their newly emergent profession on government funding, parasitologists consciously branded their discipline as a prerogative of the nation, their science as British imperial science. But more than this, conscious of the need to garner public support, they further bolstered their professional identities using British myths of nationhood. Using metaphors and images borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology, and the tales of King Arthur’s knights, parasitologists framed their profession within the discourses of heroic chivalry. You can read more about this “branding” project in my article in the Journal of Literature and Science, (Re)Constructing the Knights of Science: Parasitologists and their Literary Imaginations“. In 1905, when Nobel Prize-winning parasitologist Ronald Ross eulogised fellow parasitologist Joseph Dutton in the British Medical Journal, he wrote:

He was a true Knight of Science […] the Galahad of that group of enthusiatic young men who, with so little recompense for themselves have pushed forward the cause of tropical medical science at such a rapid rate.⁠1

Taking part in this same discourse, and extending the mythology of fin de siecle parasitologists, newspaper articles reporting on Ross’s death in the 1930s still branded him as a knight and his work as akin to the heroic adventurers of British literature.

His fight against the malaria-carrying mosquito has been truly described as more romantic than any story of knight against huge dragon […] this kindly knight was to show himself possessed of patience, imagination, determined and highly-developed reasoning power, and above all faith and courage.⁠2

Beyond their public reception, this understanding of parasitology as a “British” science, fused with national identity, had both edifying and pernicious ideological consequences. On the one hand, it encouraged scientists to see their work as an extension of their identity, and to understand that identity as world-building and selfless. However, it also placed emphasis on maintaining this heroic narrative by any means necessary. When Ross was carrying out the work that would win him Britain’s first nobel prize, he and his colleagues had to negotiate between their desire to benefit humanity and their desire to gain credit and recognition. Tropical medicine giant Patrick Manson, when advising Ross, wrote:

It is evident the Italians are now on the scent. I do hope you will run into the quarry before them. Bignami is a clever little fellow and ambitious. Laveran is working up the Frenchmen. I do not hear that the Germans are moving, but they will and so will the Russians. Cut in first.⁠3

His preoccupation is here clearly with priority, rather than a solution to the problem—in this case the transmission route of malaria, a tropical disease that was responsible, directly or indirectly, for thousands of death a day in India alone. Upon his success, a friend wrote to congratulate him:

 You have done the trick and I congratulate you heartily and I congratulate ourselves for do you not belong to us? And you are no Italian, French, or German, but a plain Briton!⁠4

dyff-donkDespite this divisive rhetoric and petty name-calling—like when Dr. T. Edmundston Charles called Italian researcher Giovanni Battista Grassi a “ten horse-power donkey”⁠5—the progression of tropical medical science was a global affair, which relied on global collaboration.

This is exemplified in Imperial administrator William McGregor’s conception of the role that parasitologists played in facilitating Empire:

“It appears to me to be more or less like this: Manson⁠6 was the surveyor, Laveran⁠7 made the road, Ross⁠8 built the bridges and laid the rails, and Grassi,⁠9 Bastianelli,⁠10 Bignami, and Celli provided the rolling stock.⁠11

As the nineteenth century gave way into the twentieth, this global knowledge base played a greater role in medical paradigm shifts, including interventions in public heath. The competition between European powers trying to create world empires ultimately led to the blighting of the twentieth century with two world wars. The European Union was set up to prevent a third, and to prevent the breaching of human rights that would inevitably accompany it.  Whatever you voted in the referendum, with so many of our medical research initiatives, academic funding pots, student study abroad programmes, and maternity/paternity pay structures bound up with or facilitated by our EU membership, it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of the importance of collaborative thinking. We don’t know what the future will hold, or what the consequences of the Brexit will be, but we should look on this as an opportunity to reconsider what our nationality means to us. What does it mean to be British in the twenty-first century? With the venom and ill-will generated by the referendum on both sides, let’s take this opportunity to re-brand our national identity and reclaim “British” as a moniker that celebrates collaboration, cultural exchange, and inclusivity.


NB. I don’t have the space here to address the troubling colonial and postcolonial narratives that pervade the politics of parasitology, but I recognise this as an aspect that hugely problematises the nationhood project. I ask you to forgive me the restrictive example, and think more broadly of the power of language and the utility of both “looking outwards” and working together, now exemplified in the global research initiatives that form part of so much of the academic output of UK HE institutions.


1 Ronald Ross, ‘Joseph Everett Dutton, .M.B., Ch. B.Vict, D.P.H.’ British Medical Journal 1(1905)2314 pp.1020-1021.

2 ‘Sir Ronald Ross’ Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 20 September 1932, p.10.

3 Patrick Manson, ‘Letter 48 02/018’ The Beast in the Mosquito, pp.124-25. (p.125).

4 London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ross Collection. Ross/48/36. Letter to Ross 31st September 1898.

5 London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ross Collection. Ross/52/12/03 Letter to Ross from T. Edmundson Charles, 1899.

6 Sir Patrick Manson discovered the mosquito vector for the parasitic disease Elephantiasis or Visceral Leishmaniasis. (Scottish-born)

7 Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran discovered the protozoan parasite responsible for Malaria. (French-born)

8 Sir Ronald Ross traced the life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite into the stomach of the mosquito and proved that it acted as a vector for Malaria. (British/Scottish, born in India)

9 Giovanni Battista Grassi demonstrated conclusively the vector transmission of malaria in humans, and established that only the female anopheles mosquito can transmit the disease. (Italian)

10 Giuseppe Bastianelli, Amico Bignami, and Angelo Celli studied the clinical symptoms of Plasmodium falciparum and recognised several stages in the development of malaria parasite within the blood. (Italians)

11 William MacGregor, ‘An Address on Some Problems of Tropical Medicine’ British Medical Journal.  2(1900)2075 pp.977-984. (p.980).

Gently Licking Worms & Preaching Mosquitoes: the Linguistic Dialogue Between Parasitology and Religion

NB. the linguistic relationship between parasites and religion is in fact at the very core of parasitology as a discipline and underscores the very concept of the parasite – see my earlier post on the parasite’s etymological heritage here

I was recently visited by two Jehovah’s witnesses. I opened the door to a little old lady and her younger friend, who greeted me with smiles and began to tell me about their religion. They asked if they could leave me their magazine to read, which I accepted, mostly out of the same crippling politeness that had kept me on the doorstep in the first place. The little old lady then, quite disarmingly told me, that it was “a lovely issue, all about THE END.” The front cover was a [badly] photo-shopped image of a young family amid plane wreckage, looking like they’d just stepped out of an episode of The Walking Dead—on the winning side. Nevertheless I opened it to find, amid the Bible verses, some very practical and thoughtful advice. The next month they brought me another issue—this time all about science, with, again, some very practical advice regarding sanitation and infection control. Despite treating science with a somewhat sceptical tone, the issue worked to demonstrate that science and religion could be productive bedfellows, and that science, far from contravening the teachings of the Bible, actually confirmed much of what the Bible already taught.

Although not one hundred per cent convinced that Pasteur’s Germ Theory and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation are encoded in Biblical texts (both things the younger friend had tried to demonstrate), I can see how post-discovery we interpret the Bible through those lenses. Equally, I do believe that quarantine practices, for example, which are described in the Bible, were practical, pre-scientific responses to the experience of disease. Just as the transmission of malaria parasites by mosquitoes—proven by Ronald Ross in 1898—had its roots in the theories of Varro, Vitruvius, Columella and Palladius, who all attributed malaria to ‘minute animals’ engendered in swamps, prime mosquito breeding grounds (116BC/4th and 1st BC), and in cuneiform scripts, which attribute malaria to the Babylonian god Nergal, who is pictured as a mosquito-like insect. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine made me think more broadly about the dynamic relationship between science and religion. One of my thesis chapters explores the relationship between parasitology and Christianity, 1700-1900, and charts the ways in which Christianity both opposed and supported theories concerning the transmission of parasitic disease.

One of the most high profile entanglements between religion and parasites in the eighteenth century concerned the theory of spontaneous generation—the idea that some organisms could be generated from inanimate matter. The strongest argument in favour of this was the existence of parasitic worms inside the body, which prior to the elucidation of parasite lifecycles and transmission pathways, appeared to support the generation de nuovo of these organisms. However, many objected to this idea on the grounds that, according to the Bible, God created the world in seven days and no more organisms were created after this point. This led to the establishment of theories of preformation: the idea that within nature existed the “blueprints” for all organisms that had ever and would ever exist, and that these seeds or germs would, under the right conditions, turn into the corresponding organism. In regard to parasitic worms this necessitated Man to contain within him the blueprints for all his parasites, which would under the right conditions—immoral thoughts and behaviours—become these pathological organisms.


However this still didn’t adequately reconcile itself with the Bible, which taught that Man, created in innocence before the fall, was free of all diseases, and owing to the seven days of creation, no new species could have been created after him. Italian physician and biologist Antonio Vallisneri suggested that the worms might have originally served a beneficial purpose such as digestion aids and became parasitic only after the fall from grace: ‘Worms [which] God appointed to Man, while he preferred him in his first state of innocence, were to be useful to him and render his body more perfect’.[1] He went on to suggest an ordained symbiotic relationship in which Adam supported and fed ‘those insects, which had a mind to live together quietly and friendly’ who in turn would not ‘transgress their bounds or eat holes thro’ the sides of the guts […] but they would rather by gently licking the parts and by healing them do their Host a kindly office.’[2] After the Fall however, the worms became ‘Ministers of Divine justice’ mounting an insurrection upon man and given ‘leave to destroy and become a common Enemy of Mankind.’[3]⁠ 

This explanation correctly argued against spontaneous generation, and by theological analogy, hit upon an idea about the evolution of parasitic organisms that recognized the parasitic lifestyle as an evolutionary adaptation. However, the theologically ordained relationship between pathology and morality, was an association that focused on internal disorganization and ignored the significance of external sanitation practices. T. Spencer Cobbold lamented the persistence of this association as late as 1879: ‘some [people] still cling to the creed that the presence of parasites, of internal ones at least, betoken evidence of Divine disfavor.’[4] The relationship between religion and science then is complex, and can have lasting effects, which are to some extent, at least in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mutualistic. Indeed even now scientists recognize their cultural relationship to religion, as evidenced in the nick-naming of the Higgs Boson, the ‘God particle’. While some may interpret this as a discovery that makes religious beliefs obsolete, others would more pantheistically argue that it simply demonstrates a reinterpretation of our fixed anthropocentric ideas about a Divine Creator.

Although now in the Western world commonly considered to be a replacement for religion, even to be a new religion, science also functions to reaffirm faith. Albert Einstein famously asserted that the more he studied science, the more he believed in God, and argued for a symbiotic relationship that saw one lame and the other blind in isolation. This perhaps conflates wonder at the universe with teleology, however is something I often come across in my research. Certainly the argument that science is religion is found in the correspondence between two physicians in the 1890s: Sir Ronald Ross and Sir Patrick Manson, two epoch-making

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

Sir Ronald Ross circa 1898

scientists who specialized in tropical medicine. They both use religious language to discuss their research, and in the process equate the discovery that mosquitoes transmit malaria (which Ross won the Nobel Prize for in 1902, and which saved thousands of lives through preventative sanitary measures in the colonies) as on a par with the coming of a biblical prophet. Ross (working in British India) prepares to send Manson (working in London) some mosquitoes containing malaria parasites to dissect, and Manson responds:

I shall welcome the twelve apostles –I mean the twelve mosquitoes in glycerine, for I hope to make them apostles in a malarial sense—preachers of the gospel of Laveran and of the cause you and I have at heart.[5]

The ‘Gospel of Lavernity’ is mentioned in other letters in the five-year correspondence, and refers to Alphonse Laveran’s discovery of the Plasmodium parasite and his postulation that it was responsible for the disease Malaria. The religious framework is continued. When discussing Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrie, who disbelieved in the malaria parasite, instead believing Laveran’s organism to be degenerated protoplasm, Manson writes: ‘these are thy prophets O Israel’[6] referring to Ezekiel 13 and the reproof of the false prophets. Indeed, it is not just Christian terminology that they borrow to express their ideas. When discussing the aetiology of Plague and its potential connection to a mammalian vector, Ross asserts: ‘If I were Surgeon General Cleghorn, the first thing I would do would be to bring a Jehad against the rats and I would kill all the rats in and around Bombay’.[7] Manson and Ross use religion to lend authority to scientific endeavour, however, in doing so they do not belittle its authenticity, nor dismiss its claims to truth.  During Ross’s years spent dedicated to the malaria problem he wrote research poems, some of which are discussed in earlier posts. These explore and catalogue his emotional response to his research and his troubled relationship to theology. In an 1890-3 poem entitled ‘Indian Fevers’ Ross recounts his experience as a colonial physician and his frustration at being unable to provide effective treatment. He entreats God to enlighten him.

            In this, O Nature, yield I pray, to me.
I pace, and pace, and think and think, and take,
The fever’d hands, and note down all I see,
That some dim distant light may haply break.

The painful faces ask, can we not cure?
We answer, No, not yet; we seek the laws.
O God, reveal thro’ all this thing obscure
The unseen, small, but million-murdering cause.[8]

Elsewhere he talks about ‘gazing worn and weary from this Dark world’ and again asks help from the ‘steadfast eye of God’. His Romantic tradition poetry, borrowing from the likes of Keats and Shelley retains a pantheistic outlook and worships Truth, Wisdom and Nature as readily as a single deity. In his frustrations he often questions organized religion, and the politics of imperialism.

            The lordly anthem peals
The while the people rot
The gilded church reveals
The penury of their lot.

No matter—let them starve!
The gorgeous mass atones;
These glorious arches serve
To sepulchre their bones.[9]

His poem ‘Reply’ from ‘In Exile’ written in India is his most famous poem, composed upon finding the proof for his discovery. The first part is often quoted as his ‘malaria day poem’ and is as follows:


This day relenting God
Hath placed with in my hand
A wonderous thing; and God
Be praised. At his command

Seeking his secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad man will save,
O Death where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?[10]

He attributes his findings to divine intervention, but understands this intervention in terms of patience and faith. Ultimately he advocates an understanding of religion that celebrates human endeavour and rather beautifully illustrates the divinity within the human:

The voice of God is heard,
Not in a thunder-fit;
A still small voice is heard,
Half-heard, and that is it.[11]

In an increasingly secular time, many people still find wonder in the power and beauty of the universe. Whether we attribute that feeling of awe, privilege, and emotion to its divine creation, to a Romantic sense of pantheism, or simply to an attempt to impose meaning on an otherwise chaotic world, it still remains significant that the cultural dialogue engendered by this functions as a space in which we can ponder our practical and moralistic identity as human beings.

[1] A. Vallisneri, New observations and experiments upon the eggs of worms found in humane bodies (London, 1713) quoted in Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms: Bred in the Bodies of Men and Other Animals (London, Printed for J Wilcox at the Green Dragon, 1721) reproduced online: [accessed July 2015] p.352.

[2] Daniel LeClerc adds the suggestion that other parasites like lice might be explained in a similar manner, having a use which is now impossible for us to discern and appearing innocence to innocent Adam under the auspices of a holy symbiosis, ‘the Lice which we now seem to have such an abhorrence of […] might [have been] very serviceable to [man], in gently opening the pores of the skin.’ A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms, p.354.

[3] Daniel LeClerc, A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms pp.352-3.

[4] T. Spencer Cobbold, Parasites; a treatise on the entozoa of man and animals including some account of the ectozoa (London: J & A Churchhill, 1879) reproduced online: [accessed July 2015]

[5] Patrick Manson, ‘Letter 32 02/011’ The Beast in the Mosquito: the Correspondence of Ronald Ross and Patrick Manson eds. W.F.Bynum and Caroline Overy (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998) p.92.

[6] Patrick Manson, p.77.

[7] Ronald Ross, ‘Letter 50 02/021’ Beast in the Mosquito, p.149.

[8] Ronald Ross, ‘Indian Fevers’ Philosophies (London: John Murray, 1911) p.21.

[9] Ronald Ross, ‘Lies’ Philosophies, p.43.

[10] Ronald Ross, ‘Reply’ Philosophies, p.53.

[11] p.54.

Planes, Panels and Pastries: thoughts on NAVSA 2013


Kunstformen Der Natur, Ernst Haeckel (1874) [image source]

When I told friends and family that I was spending two weeks of October in sunny California at NAVSA, most of them misheard me and thought I was training to be an astronaut. (The recent reveal that NASA have been sending jellyfish into space in order to study the impact on their development, might have intrigued Victorian physiologist George Romanes who described them as ‘the most delicately lovely creatures in the world,’[1] so there are connections here somewhere!) Paper written, teaching seminars covered, VISA, passport and boarding pass in hand, I boarded the plane along with a friend and colleague, ready for a transformative LA experience. The following 11 hours consisted of stuffiness, exhaustion and tots reacting badly to air pressure, but finally we arrived in  Pasadena.

The conference theme was “evidence” and was to include papers ranging from the ‘specimen poem’ to the origins of the Rorschach test. I gave a paper on the significance of evidence to nineteenth century understandings of parasitic disease. This “evidence”, I argued, was subjective and imbrued with interpretive bias; what was it that made some parasitologists see bacilli, others see protozoa, and others still, like Ronald Ross, see “beasts”, “rogues” and narrative stories beneath the microscope?

Laura Otis gave a paper detailing her qualitative research on the diverse reading experiences of individuals, including interviews with biologists, physicists and novelists alike. She explored the relationship between thought and language, ultimately concluding that there is no ‘right’ or unified mode of reading. This struck a chord with my research, which in part explores the use of imagination by nineteenth century parasitologists, both in proving their theories and in branding the discipline.

Christy Reiger and David Agruss, raised ethical and political concerns in relation to the economy of medical evidence and the practice of vivisection respectively, Agruss drawing parallels between geographical fluvial description and medical accounts of the circulatory system.

Erin Wilson discussed the figure of the Doctor in late-nineteenth century vampire fiction, arguing that, in line with scientific specialisation, the physician was increasingly taking on a new narrative role in such novels. She suggested that their position as doctor gives them unparalleled medical and narrative authority, however that the accuracy of their diagnoses depends on their worldly medical experience, rather than prior training, using Dr Philips (Of Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire, 1897) and Drs Seward and Van Helsing (Of Stoker’s Dracula, 1897) as examples.

A panel which really intrigued me was one entitled ‘Evidence of Other Worlds’, which explored the unconventional alternative spheres of nineteenth century imagination. Bradley Deane started us off with a bogus dinosaur video shown at the Annual Meeting of Magicians by Arthur Conan Doyle. He then went on to analyse the seeming paradox between Doyle’s love of mysticism and pseudo-science and his creation of the most logical detective in literary history. He did this by questioning the logic behind the franchise’s deductive reasoning and taking a closer look at the ‘Holmesian clue’, which he constructs as a fusion of Realism and Romance. Jules Law’s paper employed Holmes’ mental map of London to aid his discussion of medical cartography and its artistic license, and Deanna Kreisel explored Victorian geometry and the multiple (cultural) dimensions of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884).

bicycleOther highlights included learning about ‘bicycle face’ – a nervous disease thought to be contracted by young women who spent too much time riding bicycles! And a paper investigating the feminine wiles of the Lady detective.
In summary, my first NAVSA experience was a good one; if I had to provide evidence for my enjoyment, it would be laid out thus: new friendships, inspiring papers, lots of bagels.

Of Further Interest:

‘A List of Don’ts for Women on Bicycles’ (1895) <;

‘Everything is Interconnected’ an Artist’s material culture project making statements with Book Art  <;

[1] G. J. Romanes, Jellyfish, Starfish and Sea Urchins, being a research on primitive nervous systems (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1885) p2.

Laughing in the Archives: The Quirks that make History of Science Worth Writing

Today’s long-overdue post is about silliness. In fact it’s about the human side of history, inspired by the many times I’ve spent on my own in the archives silently chuckling about something said or written over 100 years ago. This post is a compilation of those times when one glimpses under the veil.

As the proverbial ‘star’ of my research, it seems only fitting we start with Sir Ronald Ross, whose penchant for annotating in the margins of letters and articles makes him always a joy to read. 

Including these frankly childish drawings in his otherwise sensible research diaries… 


Ross’ Notebook: Precursor to DC’s The Joker?


Ross’ Notebooks: Classic ‘man with boob’

Music as Punishment 
In a letter to friend Arthur Conan Doyle, who is trying to convince him to study mesmerism as a science, Ross playfully threatens him with having to endure Ross’ musical compilations and pokes fun at his own overreaching ambitions:

“You are always asking me to attend to psychic matters, but I am not competent and have no time. […] How do you imagine that an old fellow of sixty-two can do this when he has to finish writing his memoirs and to bring out the completion of several mathematical works, not to mention masses of war office malaria work and some great masterpieces in poetry? Besides that I want to compose some more music, and if you do not stop trying to persuade me to be a psychiatrist, I will insist upon your coming to hear said music.” – 13th Jan 1919 

Lady Lever’s Lady’s Man


Invitation for Dinner held in Sir William and Lady Lever’s Honour

In a speech given at a dinner held in the honour of Sir William and Lady Lever, the rather amusing invitation of which is pictured right, Ross refers to Sir William as: a Chairman, Sanitarian, Humanitarian, Politician, Scientist, Artist, Author, Dramatist, Poet, Obedient Husband, Father and ‘Lady’s Man’.

Solemn Review; buy it, despite the colour, and the poetry.

Pictured here is a review of Ross’ poetry by John Maytime printed in Isis in 1898. The light-hearted text reads:

“I began by liking this book very much; and after a short period of disapproval I am trying hard to conclude now by admiring it. […] the best is the enemy of the good, and the best is the only possible criterion for criticising poetry. Therefore, I apologise for liking this book no more than I do, which is really the best compliment I can pay it. Also despite the fact that it is bound in salmon-pink, printed higgledy-piggledy, and ill-corrected as to the proofs, I solemnly advise you to buy this book.”

Childish moments

This newspaper article gives us an insight into the sillier side of Science.


Women being overwhelmed by Science.

With the exception of a few science-savvy women, mostly wives of parasitologists who are granted the ability to cope with scientific discovery by proxy, the fin-de-siècle trend is to represent women as being charmed or overwhelmed by science. Here are two examples.

The Manchester Dispatch reports on the opening of the Parasitological section at Russell Square, as part of the Institute of Public Health in 1906. Here is what it has to say about the many women present.

“Dainty ladies listened to learned explanations by immaculate gentlemen, who discoursed earnestly about the irrepressible penchant of the common fly and other creatures indicated by Sir Patrick Manson for picking up minute and undesirable acquaintances, cast enthralled looks upon pictures of the tiny scavengers, inspected bacilli through microscopes, and rewarded the amateur lecturers with such expressions as “Most awfully interesting, isn’t it?” “Dear me, how charmingly weird!” “Makes you wriggle to think of it” and so on.”

Example number two takes the form of a book review. When reviewing Gwendolen Foulke Andrews’ book, The Living Substance as Such and as Organism, the editor of the BMJ writes:

“This book is one long note of exclamation. The wonders of the microscope and the deep mysteries of life which it reveals have led the author into poetic flights and a wilderness of words.”

But instead of praising her enthusiasm, the reviewer dismisses her work by summarising it,

“The whole gist of the book might have been put into the following sentences – The author has wonderfully good eyes, a marvellously good microscope, [and] a lot of leisure time in which to peep through it.”

Poetic Puns

In my research I stumbled across many poems, some good, some bad, some just plain silly like this one by British entomologist Geoffrey D. H. Carpenter, written on his travels in Uganda. 



“The Disease of the Day”

And this poem entitled ‘The Disease of the Day’ published in the Times which parodies the saturated news coverage of parasitic disease trypanosomiasis, as well as attributing all the country’s problems to an infestation of government, interestingly compounding a ‘country as body’ metaphor. It includes the lines: 

We knew the Government must be
By some malignant germ infested;
Some secret malady we felt
Was by its reckless acts suggested:
But now the truth comes out at last,
And in its muddling course one traces,
Signs that it has this ailment new – 
And has it very badly too – 
Confirmed Try-pan-o-so-mi-a-sis!

And finally here’s a photograph of Mr and Mrs Ross at ‘Bicycle Club’ in Bangalore, 1896. There’s just something a bit lovely about great minds on bicycles. The “safety bicycle” being modelled here was developed in the 1880s by J. K. Starley as a precursor to the modern bicycle, and a breakthrough allowing women to join in with the fun. However, whilst popular among the middle classes, there was still some anxiety surrounding their use. The BMJ published an article devoted to them in 1898, entitled ‘A Form of Neuralgia Occurring in Cyclists’, and bicycles are a source of anxiety for English entomologist Ernest E. Austen when he accompanies Ross on an expedition to Sierra Leone in 1899. In what reads as a panicked stream-of-consciousness, Austen writes: 

“I shall bring a gun. What about cartridges? Alas, would a service .303 rifle be of any use? I don’t quite know what to do about my bicycle; it has pneumatic tyres…”


Bicycle Club, 1896 – Sir and Lady Ross are marked with crosses.

No Man is an Island, Tropical or Otherwise.

Historians of Medicine frequently tell the story of the nineteenth century as one of scientific and medical revolution. The century in which modern medicine was born – or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say: in which it matured from gangly adolescence into a socially promising young adult. Although it is just as true to call it a century of continuity as it is to call it one of change, the rise of science and its application in unprecedented intensity certainly had an impact on the elucidation and treatment of disease. The birth of hospital medicine, the standardisation of medical training and the increasing authority given to medical science shifted sites of ill-health, of diagnosis and of treatment, away from the home and into the new sphere of the institution. In tandem an often under-played rise occurred, the rise of laboratory science. Laboratory science manifested and still manifests in varying ways: from diagnostic tests to prescription drug manufacture; from biomedical research to medical training and demonstration. The laboratory is an important space for experimentation, empiricism, and ultimately progression. I won’t attempt to negotiate the pitfalls of the search for ‘objective truth’ or even try to analyse the relative merits (or otherwise) of scientific approaches to medicine; what I would like to look at is the collaborative opportunities of the laboratory.

When the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was set up in 1898 it was a coordinated response to the increasingly pressing problem of tropical disease. These diseases (claiming the lives of colonisers and colonised alike) were no longer diseases of the ‘tropics’ that could be ignored by Westerners, but were increasingly being registered in the bodies of military officers (undermining notions of national security and colonial identity) of workers in the colonies (affecting British imports) and of sailors returning from Africa (jeopardising trade and economic prowess). These factors prompted Joseph Chamberlain – then Secretary of the State for the Colonies – to appeal to the newly formed university college in Liverpool (a thriving trade port) to set up a school dedicated to the study of tropical diseases. This school would use experimental methods to help understand and treat such diseases, complete with the first laboratory to hold live specimens of human and animal parasites! A group of ship-owners led by Alfred Lewis Jones (of Elder Dempster & co.) and John Holt (of John Holt plc.) pledged £350 per annum for 3 years to support the school, recognising mutual benefit in ensuring the health of their sailors and of their profits. The school’s first lectureship was given to Ronald Ross, soon to be the first British person to win the Nobel Prize for medicine, and the position of demonstrator to H.E. Annett. Other members of the school included physicians Joseph Dutton and John Todd, city bacteriologist Rubert Boyce and museum curator and farmer Robert Newstead. These men, hailing from very different backgrounds, all worked individually and collectively to help elucidate the burdens of parasitic disease, participating in practical expeditions and laboratory research. They belonged to an emerging discipline with a new public and professional face; the Liverpool and soon after London School(s) of tropical medicine were just two of the many institutions popping up across the colonial globe in response to the increased need for specialised disease knowledge. Much of the key work has been done by individuals in laboratories – toiling away with microscopes, slides, participants, patients and infectious agents as their tools of discovery. Their experiments were repeated and corroborated (or not) by others, theories proposed and disseminated, contested and confirmed; and although not always in direct contact with others in the field, they maintained a strong network of correspondence. Ross and Manson represent a famous example of this collaboration – exchanging over two hundred letters between May 1895 and Manson’s death in 1922. These two men forged a complicated relationship as colleagues, friends, advisors and rivals, but ultimately the support Ross gained from Manson’s tutoring and encouragement led to his discovery that the anopheles mosquito acts as a vector for the human Malaria parasite. Joseph Everett Dutton and John Lancelot Todd also collaborated in the endeavours to elucidate parasitic disease via experimentation, accompanying each other on dangerous expeditions. Both men would contract Trypanosomiasis – the very disease they had helped to investigate – and Dutton would die from it, at just 29 years of age.

Parasitologists employed laboratory and experimental science in their attempts to contribute to understandings of, and solutions to, the problem of tropical diseases. The practical, theoretical and philosophical approaches required of them often placed them in isolation, either physically or professionally; however a strong connection to an emerging research community pushed them to persevere. This conceptual network of parasitologists reminds me of the PhD student – often lone researcher powered by sheer enthusiasm, a sense of duty – and usually a disproportionate amount of caffeine! – who belongs to a wider research institute and, if switched on, collaborates with other researchers, helping to realise the full potential of their own discoveries and with any luck providing the intellectual foundation for future ones.

NB. This unwittingly turned into a blog-post about the importance of collaboration, but I would have also liked to have spoken a bit about influences, academic or otherwise, on ways of thinking about research. Thus NNDB mapper has enabled me to create a rather crude and very brief map of Ronald Ross’ social and scientific connections which demonstrates quite appropriately the many connections that can be forged through participation in institutions of research. [apologies for the misalignment, diagram just for ‘overall effect’]


‘As common as Toxoplasma’ : fearless mice & brain parasites.

After nearly 6 months of keeping this research blog, I decided it was high time I wrote a post on an actual parasite – dish up the good stuff (historical and literary parasites excluded!) Accordingly, today’s blog is on one of my favourite unicellular parasites Toxoplasma gondii.

T. gondii is a parasite with a mouse intermediate host and cat definitive host, meaning that it is passed from mouse to cat in the food chain (where the adult stages reproduce). Occasionally the parasite will infest a human – accidentally – this is called an accidental or dead-end host, ‘dead-end’ because we don’t usually get eaten by cats!

A brief summary of the life cycle is as follows:  a mouse ingests toxoplasma oocysts in the soil or water; these develop inside the mouse [tachyzoites and bradyzoites] and encyst in mouse muscle tissue. The infected mouse is then eaten by a cat. The parasites develop into adults inside the cat and reproduce. The offspring are then passed in the faeces, ready for ingestion by another mouse!

Other animals such as sheep and pigs may ingest the oocysts directly from the cat faeces or from oocysts in the environment (e.g. on grass) and themselves become infested with T. gondii. Humans can become infested if they consume food or water contaminated with the oocysts from the soil (vegetables grown in contaminated areas), directly from the cat faeces (e.g. changing the litter box) or from eating undercooked meat with muscle cysts (e.g. pork). If humans ingest T. gondii parasites they may encyst in muscle tissue: usually skeletal, myocardial, or even cerebral!

But the reason I am so fascinated by this parasite is because of its co-evolutionary success. Infesting > 50% of the human population worldwide (with 22.5% of the population of the United States above the age of 12 infested, and up to 95% of the population in some other parts of the world) they are very successful colonizers, and have a few tricks up their sleeves to help! The most impressive of these is the ability to change the fear response in their mouse intermediate host. An infested mouse displays fearlessness in place of the natural fear response and therefore they are more likely to be eaten by a cat. Several research studies suggest that they may have similar (but accidental) effects in humans – promoting ‘reckless behaviour’ such as dangerous driving and insecurity or neuroticism. The parasite has also been tentatively linked to schizophrenia and suicidal tendencies, inspiring dramatic headlines like: Cat parasite that worms into humans’ brains can drive victims to suicide’ and ‘How your cat is making you crazy’.

My ‘favourite’ fact about Toxoplasma gondii is that it is one of the few parasites that can traverse the umbilical cord and induce abnormalities or even miscarriages in pregnant women – this provides a biological explanation for the old wives’ tale: ‘Pregnant women should avoid cats’.

And that concludes today’s whistle-stop introduction to one of our most common ‘guests’ Toxoplasma gondii.

For further reading see:

Flegr, J. ‘Effects of Toxoplasma on Human Behaviour’ Schizophrenia Bulletin 33(2007)3 pp757-760.

Flegr, J., Preiss, M., Klose, J. et al. ‘Decreased level of psychobiological factor novelty seeking and lower intelligence in men latently infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii Dopamine, a missing link between schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis?’ Biological Psychology 63(2003)3 pp253-268.

Lafferty, K. D. ‘Can the common brain parasites, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?’ Proceedings of the Royal Society 273(2006)1602 pp2749-2755. Available at:

Torrey, E. F., and Yolken, Y. H. ‘Toxoplasma gondii and Schizophrenia’ Emerging Infectious Diseases 9(2003)11 pp1375-1380. Available at:

Webster, J. P., ‘Rats, Cats, People and Parasites: the impact of latant toxoplasmosis on behaviour’ Microbes and Infection 3(2001)12 pp1037-1045.

Yolken, R. H., Bachmann, S., Rouslanova, I. et al. ‘Antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii  in Individuals with First-Episode Schizophrenia’ Clinical Infectious Diseases 32(2001)5 pp842-844.

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

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