Fight against “Yellow Jack”

In the early 19th century, the scourge of Yellow Fever was prevalent in the southern United States. It had originally come over from Africa with the slave trade.  They called it “Yellow Jack” and it was relentless.  The death toll was huge as outbreaks happened in the south and people fled north.  Trains full of people trying to escape sickness were met at stations by armed men and forced to move on.  These were called “shotgun quarantines”.


No one knew how it spread.  They burned bonfires to disrupt “miasmas” that they thought caused sickness.  Patients were quarantined and doctors believed contact with sick people and anything contaminated with their fluids passed disease.  On doctor from Cuba, Carlos Finlay, put forth the idea that it was spread by mosquitoes. His paper, “The Mosquito Hypothetically Considered as the Transmitting Agent of Yellow Fever”, published and presented in August 1881 was groundbreaking.  However, he was roundly criticized as a “crank” and a “crazy old man.”  He spent twenty years attempting to prove this theory.


In 1898, the Spanish American War broke out.  Cuba was a hot bed of Yellow Fever, and that was exactly where the bulk of US troops were stationed.  Preventing the spread of Yellow Jack now became a matter of national security.   Dr. Walter Reed was sent to Havana with an elite team to study the causes of the disease.  His partner, Dr. Jesse Lazear, had studied with Reed at John Hopkins University.  Lazear brought Finlay’s theory to Reed and they decided to test it.


They took nine volunteers and exposed them to mosquitoes who had fed on Yellow Fever patients.   Nothing happened.  Perplexed,  Reed traveled back to the US on official business while Lazear keep researching.  Quite by accident they found the cause.  Lazear had a mosquito bite a colleague, Dr. Carroll. The difference was the mosquito sat for twelve days after biting a yellow fever patient.  That incubation period proved crucial as Carroll fell ill.  Sadly, the mosquito also bit Dr. Lazear and he fell ill as well and later died.


Reed was devastated.  He called Lazear a martyr, and vowed he would not die in vain.  To prove mosquitoes were the disease vector, Reed set up Camp Lazear.  One house contained every nasty imaginable from Yellow Fever patients – linens stained with vomit, diarrhea and blood.  Apparently, the smell was so bad one man had to leave to vomit as soon as he entered.  The temperature was kept warm to replicate the summer weather.  The other house was clean except for standing water to promote mosquito breeding.  They paid volunteers 100 in gold to live in the two houses.  If someone got sick they got 100 more.  The volunteers in the mosquito house contracted Yellow Fever and the nasty secretions house volunteers did not.  Finlay joined Reed at Camp Lazear to see his life work vindicated.


Based on their findings, the team suggested mosquito control to the army for Cuba.  Standing water was eliminated and mosquitoes were controlled.  Even though there was a significant decline in Yellow Fever cases in Havana, the US wasn’t buying it.  The same precautions were shared, but they were blown off until an epidemic New Orleans.  Mosquito removing precautions were taken and although the epidemic was still deadly the number of cases was greatly reduced.


On construction of the Panama Canal, the same practices were put in place to eradicate mosquitoes to protect workers.  By the end of 1906, the efforts of the “mosquito brigade” had ended the epidemic which had begun in 1905.  These practices saved many lives until a vaccine was developed in the 1940s.

Green children of Woolpit


Village sign depicting the two green children, erected in 1977 Photo Credit- Rod Bacon –

The village of St. Mary’s of the Wolf Pits, or Woolpit for short, was a quiet little place in Suffolk, East Anglia.  In the Middle Ages, the village belonged to the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, which had great wealth and power in the area.  It was in a very densely populated agricultural area of England.  So imagine the villager’s surprise when they came out to work their land and found two green children.  A strange story, one that was told by two 12th century chroniclers-  Ralph of Coggestall and William of Newburgh.  The place the story of the green children within the reign of either King Stephen or King Henry II.

The story tells that a boy and a girl appeared on the edge of a field seemingly from nowhere.  The children had strange clothing and did not speak the language.  Most strangely, their skin was green.  They were found by reapers who had gone out to harvest near some ditches, which had been dug to trap wolves.  Perplexed by the children, the reapers took them to the home of the local landowner, Sir Richard de Caine.  The children were starving, but would not eat anything until the villagers brought them raw broad beans.  They were given a home out of Christian charity.  Gradually, they expanded their diet to more than beans and their skin lost its viridian color.

Eventually, the girl learned English and told the villagers a strange tale.  She told them that she and the boy were siblings and came from a land underground called St. Martin’s Land.  She said everything in St. Martin’s Land was green and it was always twilight.  She said all the people who lived there were green, and described it as a “luminous” land across a river.  They had been herding cattle for their father and heard a bells.  They followed the sound of the bells, the two children found themselves at the bottom of the wolf pit.   They climbed out and that is where the reapers found them.

Sadly, the boy was quite ill and died not long after he and his sister were baptized.  According to some accounts of the story, the sister took the name “Agnes Barre” and married a man at King’s Lynn in Norfolk.  Accounts also report she was “rather loose and wanton in her conduct”.  

So who were these children?  Several theories abound.  Near by was the village of Fornham St. Martin, where a battle was fought in 1173.  Flemish immigrants were persecuted and killed, and it is theorized these children were perhaps Flemish orphans.  It is possible they followed the sound of the bells from the abbey and fell into the wolf pit.  Their strange skin color could be attributed to malnutrition  due to poor diet and limited food while they were lost.  There is a condition called Hypochromic Anemia caused by poor diet that changes skin color to greenish.  Another theory is the children were green because they were suffering from arsenic poisoning.  The legend says they were wards of an earl from Norfolk, who tried to poison them then left them to die at the edge of the forest.

The actual origin of the green children will never be known.  However, their story has inspired stories as well as the novel The Green Child written by Herbert Read in 1934.


The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

Still from Laughology (2009)

Sometimes laughter isn’t the best medicine. We’ve all been there- laughing until our sides hurt. Thinking if we laughed anymore we might never stop. Now imagine a laughing epidemic.

The laughter epidemic is rumored to have begun on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, on the western coast of Lake Victoria in the modern nation of Tanzania near the border of Uganda. The laughter started with three girls and spread throughout the school, affecting 95 of the 159 pupils, aged 12–18. Symptoms lasted from a few hours to 16 days in those affected. The teaching staff were not affected, but reported that students were unable to concentrate on their lessons. The school was forced to close down on March 18, 1962.

After the school was closed and the students were sent home, the epidemic spread to Nshamba, a village that was home to several of the girls. In April and May, 217 people had laughing attacks in the village, most of them being school children and young adults. The Kashasha school was reopened on May 21, only to be closed again at the end of June. In June, the laughing epidemic spread to Ramashenye girls’ middle school, near Bukoba, affecting 48 girls.

Other schools, Kashasha itself, and another village, comprising thousands of people, were all affected to some degree. Six to eighteen months after it started, the phenomenon died off. The following symptoms were reported on an equally massive scale as the reports of the laughter itself: pain, fainting, flatulence, respiratory problems, rashes, attacks of crying, and random screaming. In total 14 schools were shut down and 1000 people were affected.

The facts of the incident were not well recorded. The incident lasted from about six months to a year, and thousands fell ill before the outbreak ended as mysteriously as it began. Testing of both food and the school itself showed no presence of pathogens or toxic agents that could explain the odd behavior. Medical tests on the girls themselves

Charles F. Hempelmann of Purdue University theorized that the episode was stress-induced. In 1962 Tanganyika had just won its independence and students had reported feeling stressed because of higher expectations by teachers and parents.



Tarrare – The man with the insatiable appetite

17190722_424220004586754_4451093048173186664_n****WARNING- this post may contain some unpleasant descriptions for some.****

We all know that one person who seems to have a hollow leg. In this case, Tarrare really could eat anything and usually did. Tarrare was born around 1772 in France, and as a child was noted for being able to eat vast quantities of food. Despite this he was always hungry. His family was not rich and could not afford to feed him, so they kicked him out of the house when he was a teenager. Homeless, Tarrare traveled the French countryside and fell in with a band of thieves and prostitutes. Later he became the warm-up act for a traveling charlatan. His act consisted of swallowing corks, stones, live animals and a whole basket full of apples. later, he took this act to Paris where he worked as a street performer.

At the start of the War of the First Coalition, Tarrare joined the French Revolutionary Army. Much like his family before them, the army was not able to satisfy Tarrare’s vast hunger. To supplement his rations,he would eat any available food from gutters. His condition still caused him to deteriorate through hunger. Suffering from exhaustion, he was hospitalized and became the subject of a series of medical experiments to test his eating capacity, in which, among other things, he ate a meal intended for 15 people in a single sitting, ate live cats, snakes, lizards and puppies, and swallowed an eel whole without chewing.

He was described as having unusually soft fair hair and an abnormally wide mouth, in which his teeth were heavily stained and on which the lips were almost invisible. When he had not eaten, his skin would hang so loosely that he could wrap the fold of skin from his abdomen around his waist. When full, his abdomen would distend “like a huge balloon”. The skin of his cheeks was wrinkled and hung loosely, and when stretched out, he could hold twelve eggs or apples in his mouth. His body was hot to the touch and he sweated heavily, constantly suffering from foul body odor. His BO was so bad, he was described as stinking “to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces”. This smell would get noticeably worse after he had eaten, his eyes and cheeks would become bloodshot, a visible vapor would rise from his body. He would become lethargic, during which time he would belch noisily and his jaws would make swallowing motions. He suffered from chronic diarrhea, which was said to be “fetid beyond all conception”. Despite his large intake of food, he did not appear either to vomit excessively or to gain weight. He showed no signs of mental illness other than what was described as an apathetic temperament.

General Alexandre de Beauharnais decided to put Tarrare’s abilities to military use, and he was employed as a courier by the French army, with the intention that he would swallow documents, pass through enemy lines, and recover them from his stool once safely at his destination. Unfortunately he could not speak German, and on his first mission was captured by Prussian forces, severely beaten and underwent a mock execution before being returned to French lines.

Baron Percy's original paper on Tarrare's medical history, Mémoire sur la polyphagie (1805) (google images)
Baron Percy’s original paper on Tarrare’s medical history, Mémoire sur la polyphagie (1805) (google images)

Damaged by this experience, he agreed to submit to any procedure that would cure his appetite. He was treated with laudanum, tobacco pills, wine vinegar and soft-boiled eggs. The procedures failed, and doctors could not keep him on a controlled diet. Tarrare would sneak out of the hospital to scavenge in gutters, rubbish heaps and outside butchers’ shops, and attempted to drink the blood of other patients in the hospital and to eat the corpses in the hospital morgue. After being suspected of eating a toddler he was ejected from the hospital. He reappeared four years later in 1798 Versailles suffering from severe tuberculosis, and died shortly afterwards, following a lengthy bout of diarrhea.

The corpse rotted quickly and the surgeons of the hospital refused to dissect it. An autopsy was however done and Tarrare’s gullet was found to be abnormally wide and when his jaws were opened, surgeons could see down a broad canal into the stomach.His body was found to be filled with pus, his liver and gallbladder were abnormally large, and his stomach was enormous, covered in ulcers, and filling most of his abdominal cavity


The Harem Conspiracy

The mummy of Ramesses III, who ruled Egypt from 1186 B.C. to 1155 B.C. Credit: The BMJ

The royal court is never an easy place.  Its full of intrigue and deception and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  This is true today as it was in ancient times.  In Egypt, no one was more powerful than the Pharaoh.  However, in the Twentieth Dynasty, Pharaoh Ramses III was getting old.  He had ruled Egypt for a little over thirty years, and people were getting antsy.  Since he wasn’t vacating the throne on his own power, perhaps it was time to help him along.

Ramses had many wives like most pharaohs, however, unlike most pharaohs he did not name a Great Royal Wife.  This left the harem open to scheming and backbiting of all kinds.  There was the son of a senior wife who was the heir designate though.  This did not sit well with one of Ramses secondary queens, Tiy.  She was ambitious for her son, Prince Pentewere.  Tiy wanted him on the throne of Egypt not his half brother.  To achieve this, she had to get rid of both the old man, Ramses III, and the heir.  Tiy hatched a plan, but to make it work she needed the help of others.  So she started recruiting, and won stewards, inspectors, women of the harem, a priest, a magician and even a general to her side.  Her main co-conspirators were Pebekamen, the chief of the
chamber, and Mesedsure, a butler.  Their plans are outlined in detail in the Papyrus Rollin, the Papyrus Turin and the Papyrus Lee, which are transcripts of their trial.  Spoiler alert.  They did not succeed.

Pebekamen procured wax figures from a man named Pehuybin, which was supposed to disable the limbs of people.  These figures were secreted into the harem and more magic spells were performed to weaken the targets and evade any guards who might try to foil their plans.  This magic was done by the court magician and Ramses’ personal physician.  Messages were sent from one of the harem wives involved to her brother who was a captain of archers to “stir up the people” against Ramses.  This was going to be a full on decapiter plot with a matching revolution.  However, the plotters ran into problems as someone must have gotten scared and ratted them out.  Tiy, Pentawere and dozens of others were put on trial.  In the Papyri, it is suggested Pentewere was convicted.  Ramses’ other son became Ramses IV.  The coup ultimately failed.

One thing remained unclear, however, how far did the plot go?  There was confusion around whether Ramses III died a natural death later or if the plot had succeeded in killing him.  There were some stories of poison or that Ramses III survived the initial attack to die at a later date.  In 2012, a team revisited the mummy of Ramses III and performed a CT scan.  They found the mummy had a serious wound in his throat.  In the paper discussing their findings, the team wrote, “The large and deep cut wound in his neck must have been caused by a sharp knife or other blade,” the team wrote in a paper on their findings, published in the British Medical Journal on Monday (Dec. 17). They added that the cut, which severed his trachea, esophagus and large blood vessels,
would have killed him instantly.”

There is also question around what happened to Pentewere.  After being found guilty, he would have most certainly been put to death.  However, what happened to his body?  No one is quite sure, however, there is an unidentified mummy called Unknown Man E or the Screaming Mummy.  It was discovered in 1886 with an agonized expression on his face, which led to speculation of poison or being buried alive.  A 2008 National Geographic documentary investigated the possibility that Unknown Man E was Prince Pentawere.  The Papyri indicate Pentawere was given the “option” to commit suicide instead of being executed.  He may have used poison to take this option.  The mummy of Unknown Man E contains all its organs and is wrapped in a goat skin, which is not inline with typical mummification procedure.  Goat skin was considered ritualistically impure in ancient Egypt.  All of these things, may be interpreted as evidence punishment into the afterlife.  However, it was a kinder punishment than if he was executed as his body would have been burned and his ashes scattered.  This would have excluded him from any sort of an afterlife.  A genetic analysis of this mummy showed that Unknown Man E shared the same paternal lineage as Ramses III, which “strongly suggest[ed] that they were father and son”.