Indiana Jones took an otherwise boring, stodgy field and through the magic of exaggeration, hyperbole, and outright lies made it look exciting. Science may have a lot of fictional badasses, but none as believable and down-to-earth as Jones. The reason being that Indiana Jones was actually based on a real person, which adds that tiny edge of realism that makes us buy him. Well, this is David Pritchard, and I would like to formally nominate him for science action-hero status.
I know he doesn’t look like much, but he shows the kind of balls science hasn’t seen since the old-timey days when “experimenting” just meant blowing some shit up with some other shit and then maybe figuring out why afterwards. Also, “figuring out why” was just old-timey scientist slang for “more explosions.” Back in the day nobody really signed up for clinical trials, so if you wanted to test your risky new vaccine…well, there was only one patient who would always say yes: Yourself. That’s exactly what Pritchard did. He infected himself.
Pritchard had a theory that dangerous parasites might help alleviate allergies. He thought this for two reasons: First, because he noticed that tribesman in Papua New Guinea did not present symptoms when exposed to environmental allergens. And second, because they were crawling with parasites. It takes a truly great mind to make that tenuous connection. I, for example, might extrapolate that data entirely differently. I might think that the absence of allergy symptoms means that the tribesman just weren’t allergic to anything in the air that day. And maybe the tribesmen without allergies have the highest hookworm infestations because they’re inexplicably gay for parasites.
That’s just my highly educated scientific hypothesis, of course.
Regardless, Pritchard decided he needed a more controlled environment to test this theory in full, and that’s where the self infection came in: He “applied a dressing to his arm that was crawling with pin-size hookworm larvae, like maggots on the surface of meat,” and then “left the wrap on for several days to make sure that the squirming freeloaders would infiltrate his system.” See, Pritchard had an idea – a fuck-all crazy, counter-intuitive idea – and he decided the best way to test it was to give the finger to self-preservation, slap hygiene right in its uppity mouth, and kindly request that his immune system go fuck itself to death with a ragged axe-handle.
He isn’t one to complain much, and when asked about the pain involved, only mentions that “the itch when they cross through your skin is…indescribable.” And he’s right, because the feeling of dozens of hookworms eating through your skin over a period of days is so egregiously awful that you would use it as an exaggerated description for lesser pain. Like, say you caught poison oak, and somebody asks you what it feels like – you might tell them “it’s like parasitic worms slowly eating into my arms.” If those worms were actually eating through your limbs, however, what could you say? “This is the worst thing,” is the only accurate statement. And then to drive the point home maybe you could hysterically sob until you fell unconscious. If forced to put it into words, I would suggest “fuckhorrible screamcrazy.”
Pritchard’s theory is that allergies evolved as a means to dispel parasites, but that the worms in turn have evolved the means to shut these symptoms off, thus ensuring their position in the host is secure. Rather than finding that horrifying beyond the realm of logical sense, Pritchard thinks that’s “A-OK.” The article doesn’t specifically mention it, but I’m forced to assume that he then wrote a little card for the parasites informing them that they are “pretty cool dudes,” and immediately began researching the means to go about high-fiving a hookworm.
He’s now looking for clinical trial victims – I’m sorry, volunteers – willing to be infected with ten hookworms a piece in hopes of alleviating their allergies. There might be a small logical error here, and it’s a common issue in some problem-solving strategies. Say you have a rat infestation, so you get cats to get rid of the rats. But now you’re over-run with cats. Well, you get dogs to get rid of the cats – but now there’s too many dogs, so you get some tigers…See, it all started innocently enough, but things quickly escalated out of hand. Pritchard’s experiment follows a similar line of logic; he just didn’t want to muddle around with all those bullshit steps. Pritchard noticed he had a rat problem, so he immediately got some giant fucking tigers and a big foam finger that read “eat a dick, rats.”
Environmental allergies kind of suck, it’s true. And the medication isn’t always 100% effective – maybe 75% at best. So in pursuit of that elusive 25%, Pritchard is looking into hookworms. But according to the article, hookworms are “among the primary causes of stunted growth and malnutrition in developing countries,” and “suppress the immune system, increasing the host’s susceptibility to diseases like AIDS and malaria.” These very same hookworms kill over 65,000 people a year in the tropics, where Pritchard was studying when he got the idea. You might say that’s a big fucking tiger just to get rid of a pet hamster, but Pritchard is a big God damn man, and he does some big God damn science.