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The History of Morgellons, 1544 - present day

Introduction

The purpose of this report is to describe an affliction dated all the way back to the Tudor era which was labelled, 'The Morgellons', and to provide context to the modern day equivalent, 'Morgellons Disease'.

In 2001, Mary Leitao, a Pennsylvanian biology technician, researched the symptoms of her two year old son. He presented with sores on his lip, with protruding fibres. She read a report from 1674, by a British physician, Sir Thomas Browne, who described 'the Morgellon'; a disease which afflicted French children with 'harsh hairs on their backs' (1). Leitao believed Browne's paper was the closest description of her son's symptoms. Soon after making her son's symptoms public, thousands of families were also reporting similar symptoms to the Centre of Disease Control, who then decided to launch an investigation into the phenomena in 2006.

In 1935, Dr CE Kellet from Newcastle-upon Tyne, reviewed Browne's work on 'the morgellon' and also re-discovered numerous isolated descriptions of similar accounts from physicians dating from 1544 to 1884. In early accounts, the main identifying feature of the illness was 'hairs' on the backs of children, which needed to be drawn out of the skin. 'The morgellons' was described in some medical reference books of the time, but not all (2). Certain accounts also described similar events not restricted to infants (5).

Table 1 (below) attempts to list the main symptoms recorded by physicans:

Table 1: Early accounts considered by Kellet to be 'the morgellons':

  Description
1 'The common name for this is "the hair affection" (pilaris affectio); for this reason that by the protrusion and evulsion of hairs some cases are saved: and after this manner: the shoulders and neck are rubbed with the hand either dry or smeared from the milk pail...;the parts which are rubbed soon become rough with hairs which are clearly seen springing out like a growing beard'....The above-mentioned affection, so far as I can judge, is a fore-runner of epilepsy, where this is not a primary cerebral disturbance nor of reflex gastric origin but by reflex from some posterior part in relation to the back. The so-to-speak sooty excretion (which is the material out of which hairs are formed) pass thence via the nervous structures right up to the brain.' (Montuus, 1558) (12)
2 'There exists in little children certain living principles having the appearance of worms, that are called by the common folk Dracontia. They settle especially in the muscular parts of the body, to wit the arms and legs — the calves especially. Occasionally they even congregate in the flanks under the skin, and sometimes occupy the whole of the back, or failing that at least the interscapular region'....'Worms of this type, that are in the habit of lurking in the pores of infants and little girls' (Leonellus Faventinus de Victorius 1574) (11)
3 '..They feele through the pores of the skinne the tops of very stiffe and pricking haires to come forth like unto hoggs bristles, which as soone as they see that they are come foorth, they pull them away by and by with their nayles... the child presently recovers his health and leaveth his ordinarie cries and laments'. (Guillemeau, 1635) (4)
4 'As in the human face, especially the nose, so almost throughout the whole body lurk little worms with black heads, giving rise to itching Ö so also children have worms in the back like hairs, by which they may be so tortured that they can neither sleep nor take their milk..' (Borelli, 1653) (5)
5 'There is a type of intercutaneous worm which is wont very frequently to infest infants ... in the muscles of the arms, legs and back, and arise from an excrementory humour which is contained within the pores of the body, and is common at that age. [the worms] never creep entirely out from the pores, but protrude their little heads, which are distinguished as so many black points. How should they not then be most troublesome, for by exciting a sensation of extreme warmth and, at the same time, of itching, they bring in their train insomnia and restlessness. Where they are packed together in large quantities and are increasing, there they plunder away the living flesh.' Schenckius (1665) (10)
6 '..from hairs: it chiefly troubles children and pricks their back like thorns. They toss up and down being not able to take any rest. This disease ariseth from small hairs which are scarce of a pins length, but those thick and strong'. (Parey, 1678) (3)

7

 

'Hairs which have most amused me have not been in the face or head, but on the Back, and not in Men but Children, as I long ago observed in that endemial Distemper of little Children in Languedock, called the Morgellons, wherein they critically break out with harsh Hairs on their Backs, which takes off the unquiet symptoms of the Disease, and delivers them from Coughs and Convulsions' (Brown. ~1680). (1).
8 'With the help of the microscope these cinder-coloured animals may be made out, having two horns, round eyes, a tail which is long, forked, with the extremities, which are bent up, covered with hair. These worms are terrible to look at' (Wolf, 1789) (8)


Early treatments to the skin included; heating the skin, followed by 'melicraton' (application of honey and milk), applications of sulphur, bacon rind, vigourous rubbing, shaving or plucking the 'hairs' and occlusion using castor oil (2).

By the early 1600's, there was much debate as to whether the protrusions from patients skin were hairs or worms. A report written in 1682 by Dr Michel Ettmuller, included microscopic drawings (below) of objects extracted from his patients, which he believed to be a parasite. The drawing has been edited to remove figure E, identified by Ettmuller as the scabies mite.

Figure 1. (A) shows the sample under the naked eye; (B), (C), (D), partial sample under the microscope, (B) alone being a perfect specimen. (Ettmuller 1682):

Drawings: Ettmuller the Morgellons

The 'worm verses hair' debate continued and in 1715 the esteemed microscopist, Leuvenhoeck, pronounced the bristles “inanimate” (17). Le Clerc in 1721, reported on Leuvenhoeck's findings saying that Leuvenhoeck "did not discern them to be little worms, but Hairs or Bundles of Hairs", but Le Clerc sided with Emeermrtt - that the samples were parasites, due to Emeermrtt's long experience with microscope use (7).

The physician Bruguiéres, in 1792, recorded that he has witnessed the hairs rubbed on his patient's arms were "capable of independent movement" (9). He mentioned that the condition was known in Provence, France, as 'masclous'. Incidentally, an entry does appear in the medical dictionary published in Paris in 1932, under the term 'Masclous', the description being "mites, insects, engendered between skin and flesh" (16). Kellet's work described many alternative spellings including Sir Thomas Browne's morgellons, but also masquelons and mouscouloun which is derived from the Latin Muscula, a little fly' (2).

Laënnec (1813) believed that the 'worms' were a "smooth material that coats the surface of the skin, which is detached in the form of worms in all men as a result of friction with the hand" (14). A fair deduction from this sentence is that he believed the 'worms' to be normal skin flora or skin rolls.

From this point forward to 1884, however, the illness shifted toward comedones ('black-heads'), the facial regions and predominantly to adolescents and adults. The skin mite, Demodex folliculorum, was considered a frequent occupant of comedones, again supporting a parasite concept (15).

Kellett's review in 1935 prompted further works, including an article entitled 'Myiasis, "Fillan," and "The Morgellons"' by Dr Emslie-Smith in 1946, published in the British Medical Journal (17). Dr Emslie described cases from the UK and queried the conclusions of Kellett's and Brown's work, believing that 'comedones' did not explain the systemic symptoms described. Dr Emslie-Smith proposed that 'the morgellons' may be an affliction of myiasis (fly larvae). He wrote:

"The starting-point for an alternative speculation on the nature of the "morgellons" may be found in the migration of Hypoderma larvae through skin to muscles, thence to the viscera, particularly of the thorax, and finally to the subcutaneous tissue of the back. It is accordingly suggested that the passage, " they critically break out with harsh hairs, etc.," may refer to the subcutaneous localization of such parasites, with the subsidence of irritation of the respiratory tract. An intriguing pendant to this hypothesis is that, as Kellett has pointed out, the word " morgellons," though unique, is almost certainly derived via Provencal forms from muscula, a little fly." (17)

This was the last publication debating the aeitology of 'The Morgellons', which disappeared completely from the medical vocabulary, until Leitao began exploring her son's symptoms in 2001 and defined the symptoms as Morgellons disease (18).

 

Closing remarks

There are a number of remarkable similarities between the historic accounts above and the situation today. Mainstream medical and scientific opinion generally supports the view that the hairs and fibre bundles from sufferers' skin are just that - inanimate samples. Morgellon sufferers report the opposite, that they are recording the presence of worms and moving hairs.

Sufferers are reporting the presence of small flies and their larvae (19). Is it a co-incidence that the term 'morgellons' is very likely to have derived from the Provencal form of muscula, a little fly? The old world treatments for morgellons, described above, are often used in cases of myiasis (including bacon rind! (20)) and also to ease the topical symptoms of morgellons disease (21).

Again, morgellons sufferers today are reporting their extractions of the mite Demodex sp. from their skin and are debating whether the mites are primary or secondary in explaining their symptoms, similar to records from the 1800's.

Back in the 1600's Brown felt the disease was so unique that he believed that it would shortly awaken general interest. Schenckius wrote about the morgellons being "unknown to the old authorities" (10). Well, somehow, very little has changed in 400 years!

The debate carries on today, with a new impetus to understand what is inflicting similar symptoms on thousands of modern day families.

 

References

1. Browne, Sir Thomas (1931). Works. Ed. by Geoffrey Keynes, London, Faber & Gwyer, 1:171.

2. Kellett C, (1935), Sir. Thomas Browne and the Disease called the Morgellons. Annals of Medical History, 7:467-479

3. Johnson, T.N. (1678) The works of that Famous Chirurgeon, Ambroise Parey. London, Clarke, p.215.

4. Guillemeau, J (1635). The Nursing of Children. London, Anne Griffin, p.116.

5. Borelli, P. (1653) Hist. et obs. cent. prima. Castris, Colomerius, p.88.

6. Ettmuller M. (1682), Acta eruditorum. Lipsiae, Grossius, , p. 316.

7. Le Clerc, D. (1721) A Natural and Medicinal History of Worms. London, Wilcox, p.280.

8. Wolf, J.G. (1789) Dessertatio inauguralis medica de comedonibus. Lipsiae, Klaubarthia.

9. Bruguières (1792). Encyclopedie methodique. Histoire naturelle des vers. Paris, 1:137.

10. Schenckius, J. (1665) Obs. med. rar. Francfort, Beyer, p.703.

11. Leonellus Faventinus de Victorius. (1574) Practica medicinalis et tractatus de aegritudinibus infantium cum Appendix ad eundem per Georgium Kufnerum Juniorem. Lugdun. apud Vencentium, p.81, cap. XII.

12. Montuus, H. (1558), De infantum febribus, etc. Lugduni, tornaesius & Gazius, p.13.

13. Leuwenhoeck, A. (1695),Arcana naturae. Delphis, Bat. Krooneveld, p.46.

14. Laënnec, R.T.H. (1813), Dictionnaire des sciences médicales. Paris, Panckoucke, 1:365.

15. Simon, G. Dic. de med. comp. (Rayen.)

16. Mistral, F. (1932), Lon. tresor dou felibrige. Ed. du Centenaire. Paris, Delagrave.

17. Emslie-Smith AH (1946), Myiasis, Fillan & the Morgellons, British Medical Journal, June, p962 (click here for PDF )

18. Leitao, Savely, Stricker (2006) The mystery of Morgellons: Infection or Dellusion? (PDF 437kb) - American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. 7: (1), 1-5

19. Morgellons UK (2010) Sufferers report their unusual experiences with Adult flies

20. McGraw TA and Turiansky GW (2008), Cutaneous Myiasis. Journal of American Academy of Dermaology, 58, (6), 907-928

21. Morgellons UK (2010) Close associations: Micro-myiasis & Morgellons disease

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Published January 2012

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