The worm: a horror story

Sometimes in early medical journals a case history begins conventionally enough, before turning into something startlingly unexpected.  This is from Medical Essays and Observations, 1782:

In February last a young Man was wounded in a Duel with a small Sword, which entred about four Inches below the right Nipple, and a little towards the Back; by probing the Wound, we found it reached four Inches slanting downwards betwixt the Teguments and the Ribs, without any Signs of its penetrating, though, all the different Ways to discover it were tried, as probing, Injection, &c.  He lost a considerable Quantity of Blood, by which after he had walked off the Field for a considerable Way, he turned faintish; when he held his Hand upon the Wound, he could easily stop the Bleeding – but the Pain soon obliging him to take it off, the Blood gushed out for a little briskly, then ran trickling down, as from any such small Wound in the Teguments.

In a hundred other articles, the story would continue with details of the treatment the young man received: the bandages, the infections, the unlikely herbal remedies.  But not this one:

The third Day at Night, after he had received the Wound, he complained of a violent Pain in the Region of the Stomach, and in the Back opposite to it; but none near any Part where the Wound was, and had some Reachings to vomit; upon which I was afraid lest the Sword should have slipt through below one of the Ribs, and pierced through the Diaphragm, and touched the Liver, though he had none of the other Signs of these Parts being wounded.

He remained in a bad way, despite close attention from his doctors, suffering from a cough and from the pain in his stomach.  A fortnight after the injury he was attacked by some ‘aguish fits’, started to sweat profusely, and to suffer from convulsions.  In mid-March he developed full-blown jaundice, and then on March 24th

he took a kind of Looseness, and passed a great Quantity of Faeces, which looked like boiled Blood, and some pure Blood, complaining much of the Pain in his Stomach.

At this point things took a dramatic turn:

On the 26th he passed a large Worm, a Foot and a half long, and an Inch and a half Diameter… It had been considerably larger at first; but so soon as he had passed it (which he could not do till one in whose House he staid, pulled it from him) he was so much surprised at it, and afraid that it had been one of his Intestines, that he said he cut off about an Inch of its Tail, and gashed it in one or two Places with a Knife, to see what was in it, by which a great deal of Blood ran from it.

An accompanying picture makes clear that this was a fearsome beast:

The Worm.  Any ideas what species this might be?
The Worm. Any ideas what species this might be?

The Worm was dead when he passed it, and made up of a great many Rings like the Earth-worm; the Interstices between each Joint were rather larger than as they appear in the Figure, and were of a dark Chocolate Colour; the Joints themselves more pale, or rather of a livid Flesh-Colour: The Head was considerably smaller than the Body though made up of Joints, and very much resembled a Duck’s Bill.

Having got this out of his system – as it were – the young man felt a great deal better.

After he passed it, he staid in this Place till the 26th of April, when he ventured on a Journey to Aire, and grew gradually better, though frequently complaining of Pains in the Region of the Stomach all the Time.  

Like all the best horror stories, this one doesn’t end quite when you think it does.

From Aire he writes he has passed another, rather larger than the first, but it came away all in Pieces.

I imagine that given the size of these creatures they were used to colonising a rather larger mammal; if you happen to know your intestinal parasite species and can identify it, please do leave a comment!

Postscript: here’s an interesting parallel, from the autobiography of the 16th-century goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini:

The very evening I was taken with great precautions in a chair, well wrapped up and protected from the cold.  No sooner had I reached the place than I began to vomit, during which there came from my stomach a hairy worm about a quarter of a cubit in length: the hairs were long, and the worm was very ugly, speckled of divers colours, green, black, and red. They kept and showed it to the doctor, who said he had never seen anything of the sort before.


5 thoughts on “The worm: a horror story”

    1. Thanks; yes a tapeworm seems the most likely culprit. But from the description I’m pretty sure it’s too large to be a normal human parasite – maybe a pork or beef tapeworm.

  1. I just read Cellini’s account today and was curious too. Always imagined tapeworms as pale white, not multicolored or hairy.

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