Victorian Parasites

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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.

[via: seafoodpunch.com]

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:

                  I

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: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Fwz6h7oaoHQC [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: http://archive.org/stream/parasitestreatis00cobbrich#page/n5/mode/2up [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.

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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’]

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Ancient Boats and Etruscan Vases: Parasite Poetry & Founding Figures.

Surgeon Major Ronald Ross K.C.B  F.R.S, Physician, Scientist, Mathematician, Novelist, Artist, Poet.

Yes you read that right. Impressive accolade isn’t it? Sir Ronald Ross, the first British person to receive a Nobel prize in Medicine for his discovery of the Malaria vector, awarded a knighthood, a lectureship, an honorary M.D…He is a seminal figure in scientific research, but what is little known about Ross are his other accomplishments. He was a successful novelist and a quite striking poet. The Ross institute at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine boasts a vast archive of correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, letters from unlikely figures like H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, mathematic notebooks, research logs, poetry and even watercolour sketches of the Isle of Wight.[1]

How did this seemingly unconscious one-man attempt to ‘bridge the mutual gulf’[2] affect his life and work? Well for a start it wasn’t unconscious. Ross believed that art and science could, and did, work best together:

‘Science is the Differential Calculus of the mind. Art the Integral Calculus;      they may be beautiful when apart, but are greatest only when combined.’   –Sir Ronald Ross.[3]

He wrote poetry alongside his research, which often reflected his mood (increasingly Byronic descriptions of lost stars crying and blood red skies accompany his failed attempts under the influence of Malaria infection in India) and his poetry also narrated his ’heroic’ journey of discovery:

“I pace and pace, and think and think, and take
The fevered 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 through all this thing obscure
The unseen small but million-murdering cause.”[4]

Correspondence between Ross and his friend and guru, fellow researcher, ‘father of Tropical Medicine’, and first president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, nick-named ‘Mosquito Manson’, Sir Patrick Manson, reflects his artistic side – in one letter referring to a ‘fight’ between a flagellum and 3 phagocytes (under a microscope) as like ‘the three musketeers.’  His undeniable literary streak shines through in his scientific publications, where he describes mosquito eggs as ‘shaped curiously like ancient boats with raised stern and prow [with] lines radiating from the concave border like banks of oars’[5]. Even Manson indulges in this literary description, noting the similarity between mosquito eggs and beautiful ‘Etruscan vases’[6].

Too often such historical tributes to interdisciplinarity are overlooked; increasingly the two camps are recognising the benefits they can gain from traversing the gulf and my research is concerned with just that – the public understanding of science and how far scientific knowledge is shaped by cultural nuances. (Baited breath for future PhD progress blogposts!)

I’ll conclude this brief glimpse into the two cultures with a quote from Manson on the place of art in a scientific world, he says ‘Poetry never goes back on you. Learn as many pieces as you can, go over them again and again until the words come of themselves and then you have joy forever that cannot be stolen or broken […] The thing you cannot get a pigeon-hole for is the finger-point showing the way to discovery.’[7]

If you have opinions about the cross-over between science and literature and the public understanding of science why not send us a proposal or come along to our symposium. 

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[1] London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Ross Institute at: http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/library/archives/ross/index.html

[2] See The Two Culture’s debate inspired by C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture: C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures. (1959, London: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

[3] John Carey, Eyewitness to Science (1995, Winchester: Faber and Faber)

[4] Ronald Ross Memoirs, with a full account of the Great Malaria Problem and its Solution (1923, Kindle Edition, 2012)

[5] Ronald Ross, ‘On some peculiar pigmented cells found in two mosquitos fed on malarial blood’ British Medical Journal 2 (1897) 1786-88.

[6] Patrick Manson ‘On the development of Filaria sanguinis hominis, and on the mosquito considered as a Nurse’ Journal of the Linnean Society, Zoology 14(1878) 304-11.

[7] John Carey, Eyewitness to Science (Winchester: Faber and Faber, 1995)

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