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A collection of strange and curious science miscellanea brought to you by the author of Elephants on Acid and Electrified Sheep
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The Lice-Infested Underwear Experiment
Being infested with body lice (Pediculus humanis corporis) is not only unpleasant, but also potentially deadly, since lice are carriers of typhus. During World War II, medical authorities feared that the spread of lice among civilian refugees might cause a widespread typhus epidemic, leading to millions of deaths (as had happened in World War I). In an attempt to prevent this, in 1942 the Rockefeller Foundation, in collaboration with the federal government, funded the creation of a Louse Lab whose purpose was to study the biology of the louse and to find an effective means of preventing infestation. The Lab, located in New York City, was headed by Dr. William A. Davis, a public health researcher, and Charles M. Wheeler, an entomologist.

The first task for the Louse Lab was to obtain a supply of lice. They achieved this by collecting lice off a patient in the alcoholic ward of Bellevue Hospital. Then they kept the lice alive by allowing them to feed on the arms of medical students (who had volunteered for the job). In this way, the lab soon had a colony of thousands of lice. They determined that the lice were free of disease since the med students didn't get sick.

Next they had to find human hosts willing to serve as experimental subjects. For this they initially turned to homeless people, aka Bowery Bums, living in the surrounding city, whom they paid $7 each in return for agreeing first to be infected by the Louse Lab's lice and next to test experimental anti-louse powders. Unfortunately, the homeless people proved to be uncooperative subjects who often didn't follow the instructions given to them. Frustrated, Davis and Wheeler began to search for other, more reliable subjects.

Soon they identified conscientious objectors (COs) as potential guinea pigs. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 allowed young men with religious objections to fighting to serve their country in alternative, nonviolent ways. They were put to work domestically at jobs such as building roads and dams, harvesting timber, or fighting forest fires. In 1942, prompted by the example of the British government, it occurred to U.S. officials that these young men were also a potential pool of experimental subjects for research, and they began to be made available to scientists for this purpose.

In theory the COs were always given a choice about whether or not to serve as guinea pigs. However, controversy lingers about how voluntary their choice really was since their options were limited (be a guinea pig for science, or do back-breaking manual labor). But for their part, the COs were often quite eager to volunteer for experiments. Sensitive to accusations that they were cowardly and unpatriotic, the experiments offered these young men a chance to do something that seemed more heroic than manual labor.

Eventually COs participated in a wide variety of experiments (perhaps the most famous of these was the Great Starvation Experiment conducted in Minnesota), but Davis and Wheeler (with their lice) were the first researchers to use American COs as experimental subjects.

Camp Liceum
Davis and Wheeler located a group of COs working at a camp in rural Campton, New Hampshire who seemed like ideal subjects. The setting was isolated and allowed for greater experimental control, the men were willing to cooperate, and best of all, the men didn't need to be paid! Arrangements were quickly made, and a side camp was established for the purpose of the experiment, 40 miles from the base camp. The volunteers nicknamed their new home "Camp Liceum".

In July 1942, Davis and Wheeler took the train up to New Hampshire to meet their volunteers and begin the experiment. Davis took his lice with him. He kept them alive during the journey by allowing them to feed on his own blood.

Davis also took along other equipment for the experiment — pairs of blue cotton undershorts and light cotton sleeveless jerseys into which cloth patches had been sewn infested with lice and their eggs. These were the undergarments the men would be required to wear.

Upon arrival, Davis explained the rules of the experiment to the men. They were going to be required to wear the lice-infested undergarments for 18 days without ever changing or removing them. They weren't allowed to purposefully kill the lice. Nor could they change their bedding. The only exception to these rules was that they were allowed to remove the undershirt if they got hot while working during the day. (Throughout the experiment the men continued working at their road construction duties.)

For the first nine days of the trial, the men simply wore the lice-infested undergarments. But during the second half of the trial, once they were fully crawling with bugs, they were divided into separate groups which were given different delousing powders to test. Again, Davis had specific instructions about how to apply the powders: "Spread it over your entire underwear and the armpits and crotch of outer clothing; pay particular attention to seams and folds. The better you spread it, the less they bite!"

Throughout the course of the trial, the researchers examined the men daily and counted the number of lice they found on them so that, after 18 days, they had accurate information about the efficacy of each powder.

Between July and October, Davis and Wheeler conducted three separate trials. During the third trial, as it was growing colder, the men were given lice-infested long underwear to wear instead of the cotton undershorts, but otherwise the protocol remained the same each time. Overall, they tested 18 different delousing agents.

A volunteer later recalled that the first night of sleeping in the lice-infested underwear was usually the worst:

The first night was uncomfortable. The business of getting acquainted is often awkward, and possibly these laboratory-bred insects were just as embarrassed as were the campers. (It is hoped they slept better.) But, with few exceptions, there was no serious discomforture after that. The bites were no worse than those of the mosquito, and apart from a certain amount of uninhibited scratching in public, the men felt and behaved more or less normally.
For many of the men, the powders were far more uncomfortable than the lice, since some of the side-effects of the powders included staining of the skin, nasal and anal irritation, and burning of the scrotum. Davis reported that one of the powders caused, "a peculiar cherry-pink rubor of the lower portion of the scrotum. The skin was wrinkled and came off in dry bran-like scales; beneath the scales the epidermis was smooth and shiny."

Despite these discomforts, the men obediently did as they were told — although a few of them later admitted to taking off their underwear at night because they had felt excessively bothered by it. But they nevertheless kept the underwear with them in the bed, and Davis decided that this minor infraction didn't effect the end results. In fact, he praised the cooperation of the men.

After tabulating all the results, Davis and Wheeler didn't find any powder that was entirely ideal, although they did single out two of them they felt were the best of the bunch. But in an accident of historical timing, the efforts of all involved proved to be somewhat in vain, because soon after the conclusion of the experiment, the Department of Agriculture began testing a new powder, DDT, at its facility in Orlando, Florida. DDT proved far superior to anything that had been used before. In fact, it seemed like a miracle pesticide to researchers. It killed lice through nerve poisoning, but it didn't seem harmful to humans.

It was the use of DDT that prevented a typhus epidemic after World War II. As a result, the 32 volunteers couldn't claim to have contributed directly to this victory against the disease. But they nevertheless felt proud of their efforts. One volunteer drily remarked, "They also serve who only stand and scratch."
Posted By: alex | Date: Tue Sep 20, 2011
Category: Human Subjects, Conscientious Objectors, Medical Research, 1900-1949, United States, Insects,
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