An Improbable Infestation

This week I attended a book launch unlike any other. It was for Annals of Improbable Research and IgNobel Prize founder Marc Abrahams’ new book This is Improbable.

The IgNobel Prizes celebrate research that makes you laugh then make you think. Previous winners have included research that showed cows with names give more milk, and a paper that categorised the different types of belly button fluff.

This is Improbable follows in this vein – celebrating odd pieces of research from around the world. Instead of getting up and talking about the book at the launch, Marc asked several of us to choose readings from examples of improbable research that he brought with him. We had stories of the culinary merits of different tadpoles, the fight between two brothers over their bees and peaches, and how a CEO’s face shape can affect the success of his company.

I chose a paper published in 1954 in the journal Science which tells a cautionary tale from Mr Paul D. Hurd Jr. to entomologists (who study insects), entitled “‘Myiasis’ Resulting from the Use of the Aspirator Method in the Collection of Insects”. The title may not give much away, but read on for the full gruesome story…

“During the past two summers I have served as research entomologist at the Arctic Research Laboratory, Point Barrow, Alaska. Since the insect fauna is composed largely of small-sized insects….considerable use was made of the aspirator method of collecting.”

So far so normal.

“Apparently because of the use of this aspirator, a most unique case of ‘myiasis’ (or infestation) occurred.”

Ah. You may see now where this story is going. The gentleman then goes on to explain what an aspirator is…

“…An apparatus generally designed to collect insects by suction, consists of a vial into which is fitted, by means of a stopper, two pieces of copper tubing, one of which is directed towards the insect and the other is attached to a length of rubber tubing which is placed in the operator’s mouth. Across the end of the copper tubing leading towards the operator’s mouth a fine brass screen is secured.”

And now we get into the juicy part of the grim tale…

“Approximately 2 months after completion of the past summer’s work at Point Barrow I became ill. During the week following the onset of illness four major groups of insects (Coleoptera, Collembola, Diptera, Hymenoptera) were passed alive from the left antrum of the sinus [my emphasis]. These insects included three adult rove beetles, 13 fungus gnat larvae, three egg parasitic wasps and about 50 springtails.”

Yep. You read that right. This guy has written in to Science to tell them that he had insects growing inside his head after using the aspirator for 4-6 hours every day, which he suggests caused him to breathe in insect eggs that passed through the ‘fine brass screen’. Amazing. At the end of his letter, he goes on to offer advice for other entomologists so they do not suffer the same grisly shock that he did…

“Since it is likely that the aspirator will continue to be an important means for the collection of small-sized insects, I would like to suggest that those persons who utilise this apparatus so modify it that the flow of air will not be directed toward the operator’s mouth.”

He does admit that “it is almost unbelievable that the insects should have undergone several stages of their metamorphosis within the sinuses”, which I would agree with – how would you not notice? Sadly there were no independent witnesses mentioned in the paper (though a full medical write-up from Donald G. Casterline M.D. is apparently available), or any mentions of whether the incident had ongoing effects on Mr Hurd Jr.’s health.

You can also listen to my reading of this story on this week’s Pod Delusion.

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2 thoughts on “An Improbable Infestation

  1. Google ‘myiasis in north America’ and you will find that study mentioned. It is the only published study of fungus gnat myiasis ever recorded (officially). Its ironic that the entomologist had myiasis for weeks and had flu symptoms, but did not suspect insects infesting his nose!

    I believe his experience is repeated, and may explain the plight of patients that have morgellons disease.

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