Spontaneous Generation

Spontaneous Generation of Lice
(Revised: 01/04/10)

“Of all the legendary and fantastic diseases of ancient times, phthiriasis, or the ‘lousy disease’, was the most intriguing and bizarre. In the corrupted humors of the sufferers of this disease, lice were believed to develop by spontaneous generation, and tumors full of these insects rose on the skin. When such a tumor was incised, a stream of insects swarmed out. The flesh of the sufferer was slowly eaten away and transubstantiated into lice, and he perished miserably in this ‘most horrible of diseases’. Another singular characteristic for phthiriasis was that it was firmly believed to be divine punishment to tyrants, desecrators and enemies of religion.” [Bondeson, 1998]

“Before the invention of the microscope the belief was widespread that lice were generated spontaneously from dirt, some other disease or decomposing sweat. Such misconceptions were just as common in Chinese medicine as in European [Hoeppli, 1959] and in both cultures the nits were regarded as sterile or perhaps not even eggs at all.” [Burgess, 1995]

“John W. Maunder, a British entomologist, has explained this apparent anomaly by noting that: “When searched for, live eggs will be seen against the background of the scalp and are usually camouflaged by being the same color as the scalp. The female has some ability to change the shade of the egg in order to provide minimum contrast. … At the time of hatching, the now empty eggshell becomes a brilliant snowy white in colour, an example of distractive colouration. It is now an advantage for the nit to be seen, for this draws attention away from the darker living eggs. … The great Aristotle was only partially deceived by this. He records that the eggs of lice never hatch, but clearly did not recognize that the vast majority of eggs in the hair of an established infection are empty shells, long hatched.” [Maunder, 1983]

c. 1500 BC      The Asian Indian Vedic laws of Manu state: “From hot moisture spring stinging and biting insects, lice, flies, bugs, and all other (creatures) of that kind which are produced by heat.” [Buhler, 1866]

c. 1446 BC      In the Hebrew bible [Berlin, 1985], originally written between 1000 BC and 586 BC [Finkelstein & Silberman, 2001], the book of Exodus [8:12-16] describes the plague of ‘lice’ visited in ~1446 BC Egypt. “And the LORD said unto Moses, say to Aaron: Hold out your rod, and strike the dust of the earth, and it shall turn to lice throughout the land of Egypt.  And they did so. Aaron held out his arm with the rod, and struck the dust of the earth, and vermin came upon man and beast; all the dust of the earth turned to lice throughout the land of Egypt.”[Berlin, 1985]

“The Hebrew word for this pest is kinnem / kinnam, possibly referring to a small species that is hardly visible but which had a very painful sting.  The word also appears in Psalm 105:31 and Isaiah 51:6, but the meaning of the Hebrew word is not clear.  The Hebrew word may be derived from the Egyptian word chenemes, meaning gnats or mosquitoes.  Residents of Egypt themselves, Origen of Alexandria (Homilies on Exodus 4.6) and the Jewish philosopher and theologian Philo of Alexandria (Life of Moses, I), identified this plague as gnats, as it is also identified in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.  However, Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, 2.14.3) and the Rabbinic writers of the Jewish Talmud identified this pest as lice.  Modern scholars agree with Origen (c. 185-254) and Philo (20 BC – 50AD) that the etymology of the word suggests gnats or mosquitoes and see no foundation for the identification of the third plague as lice (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, # 3654, page 487; Davis, Studies in Exodus, page 111; Childs, The Book of Exodus, page 129).” [Anon., 2009] [(Philo) Wikipedia, 2009] [(Origen) Wikipedia, 2009]

800 BC            In Book XIX of the ‘Iliad,’ Homer “- lets Achilles speak of the danger of flies slipping into the open wounds of Patroklos and there producing maggots – perhaps the earliest exact observation in this matter.” [Zinsser, 1935]  “…I have grievous fear lest meantime on the gashed wounds of Menoitios’ valiant son flies light and breed worms therein, and defile his corpse—for the life is slain out of him—and so all his flesh shall rot.” [Homer, 800 BC]

5th Cent. BC     Anaximander (c. 611-547 BC), a Milesian (Turkish) philosopher – astronomer – geographer – biologist. “… he was the first teacher of the doctrin of Abiogenesis, believing that eels and other aquatic forms of life are directly produced from lifeless matter.” [Osborn, 1905] “This doctrine of the origin of living from non-living matter … was held for centuries in the crude form adopted by the Greeks, but has been long since disproven and abandoned.” [Shull et al., 1920]

350 BC            Aristotle (384-322 BC) wrote:

“Of insects that are not carnivorous but live on the juices of living flesh, such as lice and fleas and bugs, all, without exception, generate what are called ‘nits’, and these generate nothing….Lice are generated out of the flesh of animals.

When lice are coming there is a kind of small eruption visible, unaccompanied by any discharge of purulent matter; and if you prick an animal in this condition at the spot of eruption, the lice jump out. In some men the appearance of lice is a disease, in cases where the body is surcharged with moisture; and indeed, men have been known to succumb to this louse disease, as Alcman the poet (7th Century B.C.) and the Syrian Pherecydes (6th Century B.C.) are said to have done. Moreover, in certain diseases lice appear in great abundance. [Aristotle, 350 BC]

c. 30 BC          Diodorus Siculus (c. 90 BC – c. 30 BC), a Greek historian, wrote a 40 book ‘Bibliotheca Historia’   based on earlier works by others. [(Diodorus) Wikipedia, 2009] In book 34 he claimed that Eunus, who led the slave revolt on Sicily in 136 BC, was captured and died in prison of phthiriasis, the ‘lousy disease’.  He also“… revived the old louse story – its origin from human skin and perspiration.” [Zinsser, 1935]

c. 40 AD          Aulus Cornelius Celsus (25 BC – 50 AD), a Roman encyclopedist, published De Medicina in c. 40 AD. This work was rediscovered by Pope Nicholas V and first published in 1478. [(Aulus Celsus) Wikipedia, 2009]

There is also a kind of disorder in which lice are born between the eyelashes; the Greeks call it phthiriasis. Since this comes from a bad state of health it seldom fails to get worse; but usually in time a very acrid discharge of rheum follows, and if the eyeballs become severely ulcerated, it even destroys their vision..” [Celsus, 1935]

c. 94 AD          Flavius Josephus [37-c. 100AD], a Jewish historian, wrote: “…. for there arose out of the bodies of the Egyptians (of the Bible) an innumerable quantity of lice, by which, wicked as they were, they miserably perished, as not able to destroy this sort of vermin either with washes or with ointments.” [Josephus, 94AD] However, see: [Anon, 2009] [(Josephus) Wikipedia, 2009)

c. 210 AD        Claudius Aelianus or Aelian (ca. 175–ca. 235), wrote of the tragic poet Pherecydes (6th Century B.C.)  that: “He first of all sweated greatly, and then lice (φθερες) grew, and as his flesh decomposed into lice, then followed dissolution, and so he gave up the ghost.” [Kaposi, 1880]

5th Cent            Caelius Aurelianus of Sicca in Numidia was a Roman physician and writer on medical topics. [(Caelius Aurelianus) Wikipedia, 2009] In “Chronic Diseases,” he described phthiriasis: “The signs of the disease are sleeplessness, itching of the body, pallor, loss of appetite, weakness of the esophagus, and loss of hair. The affection is one which involves a state of looseness. For a considerable discharge of reddish bile appears through the thin pores, and it is from this matter that the animals are generated.” In another section of his work, Caelius noted that diseases of the spleen are sometimes accompanied with lice infestations. [Riddle, 1984]

c. 500 AD        “The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. The Talmud has two components, the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), the first written compendium of Judaism’s Oral Law, and the Gemara (c. 500 CE), a discussion of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects…” [(Talmud) Wikipedia, 2009]

“The Talmud distinguishes between the lice of the head and those of the body, i.e., of the garments: the former have red blood; the latter, white… Both are produced not by copulation, but by uncleanliness; and cleanliness is therefore the best means of getting rid of them… It is sinful to kill a louse in the presence of other people on account of the disgust thus caused.” [Mumcuoglu, 2005]   

“The view of the spontaneous generation of lice and their lack of sexual reproduction appears in several sources throughout the Bavli (Talmud) One passage states: Gossip comes from peddlers, and lice from rags. In other words, lice naturally reproduce from rags.” [Safrai et al., 2006]

“ …the Rabbinic writers of the Jewish Talmud identified… the kinnem of the Egyptian plagues as lice.” [Anon, 2009a] 

c. 850 AD        Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (c. 838 – c. 870 CE), a Persian physician of the 9th century, wrote Firdaws al-Hikima (The Paradise of Wisdom) one of the oldest Arabic compendiums of medicine. Chapter 190 discusses various diseases of the skin, including lice (gaml). Chapter 329 “On the Genesis of Man and on the Generation (Procreation) of Animals. Four kinds of generation: from the uterus (mankind and mammals), from the egg (birds,fishes), from the earth (Spanish flies) [dhararih] and worms) and from dirt (lice and nits).” [Meyerhof, 1931]

c. 1180            Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), a Spanish Jewish rabbi and sage who served as a physician at the Egyptian court wrote that: “It is permissible to kill lice on Shabbat (Sabbath) because they are (spontaneously generated) from sweat.” [Maimonides, 1180]

c. 1240            Ibn Abi’l-Hadid (d. 1257), an Islamic scholar, wrote in “Sharh Nahj al-balagha” that: “…maggots come into being in fruit and meat, and lice in water-melons and putrid places.” [Kruk, 1990]

~1260              Albertus Magnus (1193/1206? –1280) was a Dominican Friar and alchemist.[(Albertus Magnus) Wikipedia, 2009] He noted that: “mercury is a kind of poison that “kills lice and nits and other things that are produced from filth in the pores.” [Cobb & Goldwhite, 2001]

c. 1300            Jehan Yperman (1260? – 1330?), a Flemish military Surgeon, wrote:

“Lice that grow on the body produce excrement that lodges between the skin and the subcutaneous flesh, and when shed, it becomes nits or lice.” [Yperman, 2003]

c.1330             Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (1292 – 1350), a famous Sunni Islamic jurist and commentator on the Qur’an, wrote many books. [(Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya) Wikipedia, 2007] One of these books was: “Healing with the Medicine of the Prophet.[Ibn Qayyim, 2006]

The Prophet’s guidance on treating and removing lice from the head. … Lice appear on the head and body for two reasons, external and internal. The external cause occurs due to uncleanness and impure substances that the skin might carry. The internal reason is caused by rotted substances that the body expels through the skin and then rots due to the wetness in the skin’s pores. The lice appear then (and feed on these rotted substances). Many times, lice appear after one suffers from various illnesses and diseases, because in this case cleanliness is ignored. Also, children are the typical victims of lice because they play in and deal with wet things and because of their careless nature. This is why the Prophet ordered that the heads of the sons of Ja’far be shaved, as shaving is one of the best cures for lice because it exposes the skin to the sun and allows harmful moistures under the skin to evaporate. The, the head should be anointed with the cures that prevent lice from reproducing and kill them.” [Ibn Qayyim, 2006]

1544                Thomas Phaer, in the first pediatric textbook written in English, noted that: “Somtymes not only chyldren but also other ages are annoyed with lyce.  They procede of a certain corrupte humour, and are engendred within the skynne, crepyng out alyve through the poores, whiche , yf they beginne to swarme in excedyng nombre, that dysease is called of the Grekes Phthiryasys.” [Phaer, 1544]

1577                William Harrison, a chaplain to Lord Cobham and later Canon of Windsor, wrote: “Yet sure I am of this, that no one living creature corrupteth without the production of another, as we may see by ourselves, whose flesh doth alter into lice, and also in sheep for excessive numbers of flesh flies, if they suffer to lie unburied or uneaten by the dogs and swine, who often and happily present such needless generations.” [Harrison, 1577]

1584                Giambattista della Porta [1535-1615] was a Neapolitan scholar of the natural and physical sciences. In 1584 he completed his encyclopedic work titled: “Natural Magic”, which included both ancient and contemporary knowledge. In the 2nd Book (based on ancient writings), he asserts that animals and insects can be produced spontaneously from putridification. [della Porta, 1584]

late 16th C.         “Ambroise Pare (c.1510 – 1590) was a French surgeon. He was the great official royal surgeon for the kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III and is considered one of the fathers of surgery.” [(Ambroise Pare) Wikipedia, 2009] He wrote of human lice: “These three sorts of animals are engendered from a multitude of humors and corrupt humidities, made by a viscid portion of the sweat, that collects and stops the pores of the the true skin.   Small children are very subject to them, as they so often crapulate and engender them in their excrements.   Lice are engendered in all portions of our bodies, even in the masses of our blood, as Pliny bears witness in several places.” [Minor, 1898]

c. 1595            One of the first compound microscopes was developed in 1595 by Hans and Zacharias Janssen in Middelburg, Holland. [(Microscope) Wikipedia, 2008]

17th Cent.         17th century physicians still followed Aristotle’s dictum that lice were born from sweat by a “spontaneous generation” phenomenon. [Aristotle, 350 BC]  However, their patients continued to treat themselves by delousing. This is often shown in 17th century paintings, especially in Dutch “genre painting”. [Cabotin, 1994] [Mumcuoglu, 2002] (See nit picking portrayed in Gerard ter Borch’s 1652 painting: “Woman Combing a Child’s Hair,” which is printed on the cover page of “Emerging Infectious Diseases,” 5(2) Mar-Apr 1999). In 1658-60, Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) painted “Mother and Child with Its Head in Her Lap.” This painting showed the mother picking through the girl’s hair for lice. [Hughes, 2001] Sculptures representing trained monkeys delousing humans can be found in Lisbon, Portugal. [Annon., 2004]

1617                Cornelius Lapide (1567-1637), a Professor of theology in the Academy of Louvain, and a Flemish Jesuit priest, asserted that: “lice, flies, maggots and the like were not created directly by God but by spontaneous generation, as lice from sweat.” [Lapides, 1617]

1648                Rene Descartes (1596 –1650), the French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, developed the Cartesian Coordinate system and was a key figure in the Scientific Revolution. [(Rene Descartes) Wikipedia, 2009]  He wrote: “… so little is required to make an animal, it is really not surprising that we see so many animals, so many worms, so many insects spontaneously forming in all putrefied matter,” [Broughton & Carriero, 2008]

1652                Alexander Ross wrote: “This vermin breeds most in those given to sweat, to nastinesse, and abound in putrified humours, between flesh and skin, whose constitutions are hot and moist, as children; and according to either of the four humours are predominant, so is the color of lice, some being red, some white, some brown, some black; sometimes they burst out of all parts of the body, as in Herod, and in that Portugal, of whom Forestus speaks [1. 4. de vitiis capitis] out of whose body they swarmed so fast, that his two men did nothing else but sweep them of, so that they carried whole baskets full. Sometimes they breed but in some parts onely, as in the head or arm-pits. Zacuta mentioneth one who was troubled nowhere but in his eie-lids, out of which they swarmed in great numbers.” [Ross, 1652]

1653                Robert Pemell wrote in “De Morbis Puerorum”: “If persons of years live nastily and do not change (clothes) often, they soon become lousey. But tis very familiar for Children to breed Lice. They arise from a hot and moist matter which putrifieth in the skin, or pores of the body. Sometimes they are bred by eating of Figs, in grown persons because they ingender bad juyce. The signs are apparent, for the lice are bred both on head and body.…If  lice be onely in the head, in many it preserves their health, because they consume  much excrementitious humors.”  [Pemell, 1653]

1664                Robert Hooke (1635-1703), “the father of microscopy,” noted that: “Lice proceed from Parents of their own kind, and not (as formerly was supposed) from certain juices or humours of human bodies; which may serve indeed to nourish them, but can never breed them.” [Hooke, 1664][(Robert Hooke) Wikipedia, 2009]

1668                Francisco Redi (1627-1697) showed by experiment that maggots are not spontaneously generated from rotten meat, but rather require the presence of flies to lay eggs on the meat. He also showed that “Lice are bred of Eggs or nits, laid by their female parent; he having discerned by a Microscope some nits yet pregnant with young ones, others, emptied of them.[Anon., 1670] [Redi, 1668]  However, the belief in “spontaneous generation” of life remained strong for the next 200 years until the 1870’s, after the definitive experiments of Louis Pasteur [Pasteur, 1864] and John Tyndall. [Tyndall, 1881]

1669                In 1669 Jan Swammerdam (1637 – 1680) made careful microscope observations of insects combined with meticulous dissections, to show the errors of spontaneous generation. This information formed the basis of the modern understanding of development. However, it was not until 1737 that this information was published, first in Dutch and Latin, and then twenty-one years later in English. [Swammerdam, 1737] [Swammerdam, 1758]

1676                Following the unexpected death of Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., (the leader of Bacon’s rebellion), Sir William Berkeley (the Governor of Virginia) wrote: “But within three weekes after, the Justice and Judgemen of God overtook him. His usual oath which he swore at least a Thousand times a days ‘God damme my Blood’ and God infectd his blood that it bred Lice in incredible number so that for twenty dayes he never washt his shirts but burned them. To this God added the ‘Bloody flux’ and an honest Minister wrote this Epitaph on him: Bacon is dead, I am sorry at my hart that Lice and flux should take the hangman’s part.[Berkeley, 1676] This episode is yet another instance where the ‘Lousy disease’ was invoked to explain the death of a hated opponent.

1687                Francisco Redi wrote a small book announcing the discovery of Sarcoptes scabiei by Gio. Cosimo Bonomo. The book was based on a letter written by Bonomo to Redi in which he described the microscopic observation of the deposit of an egg by a ‘itch’ mite.

“With great earnestness I examined whether or not these animalcules laid eggs, and after many inquiries, at last by good fortune while I was drawing the figure of one of them by a microscope, from the hinder part I saw drop a very small and scarcely visible white egg, almost transparent and oblong, like to the seed of a pineapple.

“I oftentimes found these eggs afterwards, from which no doubt these creatures are generated, as all others are, that is from a male and female, though I have not yet been able by any difference of figure to distinguish the sex of these animals.” [Ramos-e-Silva, 1998]

1702                Anton van Leeuwenhoek performed a series of experiments, which once again disproved Aristotle’s theory of “spontaneous generation.” [Aristotle, 350BC] Leeuwenhoek “showed that weevils of granaries (in his time commonly supposed to be bred from wheat as well as in it) are really grubs hatched from eggs deposited by winged insects. Some theorists asserted that the flea was produced from sand and others from dust or the like, but Leeuwenhoek proved that it was bred in the regular way of winged insects.” [Anon., 2006] He wrote: “Seeing the wondrous dispensations of Nature whereby these “little animals” are created so that they may live and continue their kind, our thoughts must be abashed and we ask ourselves, can there even now be people who still hang on to the ancient belief that living creatures are generated out of corruption? [Leeuwenhoek, 1702]

1728                Ephraim Chambers noted in his Cyclopedia that Spontaneous Generation (Also called Equivocal Generation or an Egyptian Doctrine) was passé. “This method of generation, which we also call Spontaneous, was commonly asserted and believed among the ancient Philosophers: But the Moderns, from more and better Observations, unanimously reject it, and hold that all Animals, nay and Vegetables too, are Univocally produced, that is, by Parent Animals, and Vegetables of the same Species and Denomination.” [Chambers, 1728]

1730-1802       “From 1730 to1802, no new case of phthiriasis was published, and at the end of the period, several men of observation questioned the existence of the disease. The entomologists now knew a good deal about the anatomy and physiology of lice, and they doubted the capacity of these aerobic insects to live under the skin and lay eggs there. Although some medical men still advocated the theory of spontaneous generation, it had little support from the entomologists and scientists of this time.” [Bondeson, 1998]

1745-1748       John Needham (1713-1781), a Scottish Catholic priest and naturalist showed that microorganisms grew in soups that had been exposed to air. He briefly boiled some of his soup and poured it into ‘clean’ flasks with cork lids and microorganisms still grew in the soup. He suggested that these experiments showed that there was a ‘life force’ present in the air that could cause ‘spontaneous generation’ of microorganisms in his soups. [(John Needham) Wikipedia, 2009]

1746                Jean Astruc (1684-1766), chief physician to the King of France, wrote a treatise on the diseases of children. [Astruc, 1746] The 2nd Chapter of the book is titled: “Of the Phthiriasis, or Morbus Pedicularis.” Based on the experiments of Leewenhoek [Leewenhoek, 1702] and Vallisneri (1661 – 1730), Astruc dismissed the theory of ‘spontaneous generation’ and asserted that Pediculi are born from eggs fixed to the roots of hairs. They pass by contact from one infected person to another. Adults are less frequently infected than children. However, he claims to have seen closed skin cysts filled with lice. He drew an analogy with the deposit of fly larvae into openings in the skin of cows, and the later emergence of flies, and postulated that the pediculi have a “…sharp rostrum and head, whence they enter by the smallest aperture or excoriation, nay by the very pores of the skin, like mercury.[Astruc, 1746]

1768                Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799), a professor of Natural History at the university of Pavia, proved that microbes can be transported by air and that they can be killed by boiling the media. [(Spallanzani) Wikipedia, 2009] His work paved the way for later research by Louis Pasteur. [Pasteur, 1865]

1771                The first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica dismissed abiogenesis (the generation of animals from inorganic matter): “This kind of generation is now quite exploded by the learned.” [Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771]

1799                     M. Marchilli, surgeon, member of the Institute of Genoa, published the following case in the memoirs of the Academy of that city: A woman, aged 49 or 50 years … had parasites (pediculi) communicated to her head, in using a comb which did not belong to her. She used means (veratrum sabadilla) which had been successful in destroying these insets in the past, but they continued to multiply so rapidly that, though six or seven hundred of them were killed several times a day, there was scarcely any relief. They presented, too, different colors: some were white, grey, black, reddish or yellowish, and mostly very small. Decoctions of tobacco, vinegar, etc., having failed, and the use of a comb to remove or kill them, the hair was cut and the head shaved. Some relief was thus obtained, by using the razor every second day, but soon some appeared on the pubes. … The surgeon-general of the French army, in Italy, recommended mercury, which, instead of destroying them, made them discharge by the thousands. … Musk, camphor, onions, strong aromatics were tried in vain. … Submitted to the microscope, the author could find no difference between them and the pediculi humani of Linnaeus. He tried experiments with various substances to destroy them, without arriving at anything definite. (Eventually) … our author lost sight of the case. [Eve, 1857

1801                Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) was an English physician, poet, natural philosopher, and the grandfather of Charles Darwin. [(Erasmus Darwin) Wikipedia, 2007] He wrote in “Zoonomia”that: “There is said to be a disease in which these animals (lice) are propagated in indestructible numbers, so as to destroy the patient.” As a treatment he suggested: “Cleanliness, mercurial ointment(*), stavisacria(*) in powder, or tincture of it in spirit of wine. Spirt of wine alone? Bath of oil?” [Darwin, 1801]

1808                Robert Willan (1757-1812), an English dermatologist observed that the marvelous histories of fatality occasioned by lice are probably ascribable to confounding some other insect for lice. [Willan, 1808]

1810                Nicholas Appert (1750-1841), a French chef, applied Spallanzani’s results to commercial food, placing it in clean bottles, sealing them tightly, and then boiling them. These techniques founded the canning industry in 1810. Appert won a 20,000 franc prize from Napoleon Bonaparte for his results.

c. 1823            According to C. H. Fuchs, “… mites resembling lice are said to arise in the unbroken skin and to come forth from peculiar opening tumors.” [Ziemssen, 1885]

1824                “In 1824 the German Dr. Henric Christian Alt proposed a new theory in his doctoral dissertation on phthiriasis. He believed that a previously unknown species of louse, Pediculus tabescentium, or the phthiriasis louse, caused this disease, and that it did not develop from nits like other lice but was spontaneously generated. Alt’s theories were accepted throughout Europe, for they were generally considered a better explanation of the many bizarre features of the disease than those previously essayed.” [Bondeson, 1998]

1832                John Stephenson, MD and Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote: “The generation of lice, in connection with Prurigo senilis, though not fatal, is frequently a very troublesome and obstinate malady …” [Stephenson, 1832]

1836                Hermann Burmeister (1807–1892), a German zoologist and entomologist, noted that many credible authorities confirm the equivocal generation of insects, and that “… the best known phenomenon of this description is the Phthiriasis, or lousy disease, in which a particular species of louse (Pediculus tabescentium, Alt.) originates upon the skin, and collects in great numbers at particular spots, chiefly upon the breast, the back, and the neck, between the folds of the skin, making the skin uneven, so that scale shaped lappets of the epidermis peel off, and beneath which the lice conceal themselves.  We find in Ancient, and here and there in modern authors, testimonies of their spontaneous origin, the true cause whereof may consist of a general corruption of the juices in old, weak, and enervated subjects. Pheretima, according to Herodotus, and Antiochus Epiphanes, both Herodians, Sylla, Alemanus, the Emperor Maximian, the poet Ennius, the philosophers Pherecydes and Plato, Philip the Second, and the poet and actor Iffland, are said to have died of it; and very recently at Bonn. At the clinical school there, a woman of seventy was found to be thus diseased, but was cured by the rubbing in of the oil of turpentine.” Burmeister wrote that human lice were generated from sweat. However, he noted that the insects, described by Aristotle as the cause of deaths of Alemanus and Pherecydes, were not lice, but rather Acari of the itch, because they burrowed in swellings of the skin and came out when the swellings were opened. [Burmeister, 1836]

c. 1855            Dr. Gaulke was a country practitioner from Insterburg, Germany. He  described “… two cases where he had met with whole colonies of lice under the skin in boils, and explains that the louse enters the skin by penetrating it with his proboscis.” [Neumann, 1872] He “… reported a series of cases of so called ‘genuine phthiriasis’ which has been said to have been produced each time by pediculus vestimenti. … Gaulke expressed the view that the pregnant animals pierced the skin with their anal sting in order to lay their eggs under the epidermis.” [Ziemssen, 1885]  [Bondeson, 1997] 

1857                Frederich Kuchenmeister, was a German Physician who was an expert on human and animal parasites. He was well known for developing scientific meat inspections by veterinarians, and for his experiments which proved the importance of cystic worms in the development of Taenia Multiceps in sheep. [Anon, 2009b] He was a member of The Natural History and Medical Society of Dresden. He wrote: “For the present I join with those who suppose that a peculiar species, Pediculus tabescentium, does not exist.” [Kuchenmeister, 1857]

1861                Leonard Landois (1837-1902), a German physiologist who was a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, wrote “Uber der Haarbalgparasiten des Menchen (About the parasites of Men),” in 1861.  [(Leonard Landois) Wikipedia, 2009] He noted that “…not all cases of phthiriasis cited in the literature were really such, that the disease consists in an increase of the pediculus vestimenti, that therefore Alt’s separate species of pediculus tabescentium does not exist, and that in the case of grave disease the animals in question enter the human skin in large numbers and there cause either open or covered pedicular ulcers.” [Ziemssen, 1885]

1864                Experiments performed by Louis Pasteur demonstrated conclusively that the theory of ‘spontaneous generation’ was false.  His paper won a contest sponsored by The French Academy. [Pasteur, 1864]

1865                Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra (1816-1880), an Austrian physician and dermatologist, was the founder of the New Vienna School of Dermatology. [(Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra) Wikipedia, 2009] He noted “… that pediculi, owing to their anatomical structure, cannot live in closed cavities nor in fluids; that no observer, not even Landois, has ever really seen such an occurrence; and that neither the sense attributed to it by the older authors, nor in the sense suggested by Gaulke and Landois (pediculi in and beneath the skin), is there, or has there ever been, such a disease as phthiriasis.”  [Hebra, 1865][Hebra, 1866] 

1872                Isidor Neumann (1832 – 1906), wrote in his Handbook of Skin Diseases”: “It was formerly believed that lice inhabit boils and abscesses of the skin, and were developed from the bad humors of the body, and that death was possible from this affection [Emperor Arnulf’s (899 AD) death, and that of the Danish king, Snyo (~650 AD), from lice, see Husemann, deutsche Klinik, p. 33, 1867]. These views obtained during the last century, Alibert (1768 – 1837) believing in the existence of the lousy distemper; Devergie (1798 – 1879) also affirmed that poor nourishment of the body might lead to the development of lice. Even Fuchs assumed a spontaneous lousiness, and asserted that cachectic (failing to thrive) persons had boils formed on them, within which, besides pus and ichor (bile), there were lice.” [Neumann, 1872]

1876                John Tyndall (1820-1893), an Irish optical Physicist, answered the objection raised by supporters of ‘spontaneous generation’, who had observed that microbes occasionally began growing in boiled infusions of hay. Tyndall showed that sometimes the hay was contaminated with spores, which can survive lengthy boiling. [Tyndall, 1876] He developed the technique of fractional sterilization which killed the otherwise heat resistant bacterial spores. [(John Tyndall) Wikipedia, 2009]

In no instance is the least countenance lent to the notion that an infusion deprived by heat of its inherent life, and placed in contact with air cleansed of its visibly suspended matter, has any power whatever to generate life anew. [Tyndall, 1881]

20th Cent.         “During the early years of the twentieth century, the lousy disease was gradually forgotten. No new cases were reported, and in books on classical and biblical medicine, it was mentioned only as an example of the confused medical thinking of those times.” [Bondeson, 1998]



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©2010 by Harry A. Morewitz, PhD.  All rights reserved.