Infested by the Wizard of Oz

Jay Traver had begun to notice an uncomfortable crawling sensation under her skin. Scalp spots had bothered her for years but despite her best efforts – she was, after all, a renowned professor of zoology – she couldn’t identify the parasites.

Over the seasons the bugs had spread across her body and eventually invaded her eyes, ears and nostrils, raising her discomfort to fever pitch. Doctors seemed mystified but by the summer of 1950 she had made a breakthrough.

Strong caustic soaps seemed to help control the infestation and she had dug some of the bugs out of her skin with her nails to identify them as dermatophagoides – a mite never previously known to infect humans.

Although lacking a cure she wrote of her discovery and experiences as an article for the scientific journal Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington which later appeared in their February 1951 issue.

It is perhaps one of the most remarkable scientific papers ever published, not, as it turns out, because of the startling new discovery, but because the Professor had never been infected by parasites.

The bugs were hallucinated, the infestation a delusion and Travers was suffering from a mental illness.

Known as delusional parasitosis the condition consists of the usually focused delusion that the person is infected by parasites that crawl under the skin and which remain present in the surrounding environment.

Patients often turn up to doctors with small bugs in plastic bags which later turn out to be dust, irrelevant bugs or even just flakes of human skin.

Extensive damage is common as patients apply stronger and stronger solutions to the skin or use sharps objects to dig out what they assume are parasites below the surface of their body.

Professor Traver’s article reports these experiences in detail and even has photos of the supposed ‘dermatophagoides’ mites – which were identified by others as common house dust mites that only live on dry skin that has flaked off the body.

Tellingly, the article described how, after an admission to hospital where no parasites were found, Traver was referred to a neurologist for what was apparently labelled a “psychoneurotic condition”. Dismissing the diagnosis she quickly ducked the appointment.

The scientific paper has become a little-known classic for students of obscure psychiatric conditions. In a recent article on the condition, entomologist Nancy Hinkle hailed it as “one of the most astounding first-person accounts of Ekbom’s syndrome” available but the paper has a more profound point.

Hinkle notes that “her experience illustrates that even highly educated scientists accustomed to dealing with facts and evidence are not immune to delusions”.

We like to think that our convictions are based on reasoned conclusions and that all of our beliefs are subject to the searchlights of self-inquiry, but we are only experts as far as we are allowed by our own minds.

Like a Wizard of Oz that never got found out, we cannot see the man behind the curtains and even knowing he is there doesn’t let us detect him at work.

Professor Jay Traver lived with her delusions for 31 years, right up until her death.
 

pdf of Traver’s 1951 paper.
Link to annoyingly pay-gated Hinkle paper on delusional parasitosis.

9 Comments

  1. Posted March 1, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Amazing story Vaughan. To me it cradles the experience of being human – and nice metaphor at the end.

  2. grilly
    Posted March 1, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    this must surely be the inspiration behind the story at the start of pk dick’s ‘a scanner darkly’? i’m sure dick would qualify as a ‘student of obscure psychiatric conditions’. or perhaps dick or a friend of his suffered from the same condition – which seems as likely.

    • Hunca Munca
      Posted March 4, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      Grilly I think the condition that one character of Dick’s had was similar to what this case was like but the delusion was induced by drug use. Glad I read your comment, it has been too long since I read him…

  3. Posted March 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    On this general topic, one of my favorite movies is “Bug” (2006). I haven’t seen any negative criticisms of it’s scientific plausibility. The Roger Ebert review is quite good (as is typical for him).

    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060522/FILMFESTIVALS01/60522002

  4. Avicenna
    Posted March 2, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a link to the article:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/49865532/Hinkle-2011

  5. Dianne
    Posted March 3, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    3rd paragraph from the end should read “our” convictions, not “are convictions”….

  6. Posted March 3, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    eczema patients and others with skin so sensitive that it can be tortuous to hang out in the world may describe the experience (itching) in terms of bugs or worms. um, why is that.

  7. Posted September 18, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Just saw a slideshow in the NYT today that reminded me of this lady.

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/18/opinion/sunday/20110918_OPINION_ALLERGYGOBIG.html?ref=health#1

    MCS – Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Sounds like a neurological disorder to me, but even the photographer, who was partially cured, seems to think it really exists despite her cure involving ‘neural retraining,’ the same process applied to helping stroke victims recover from their brain trauma.

  8. Sheila O'Leary
    Posted February 27, 2014 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    Before condeming Jay Traver and the 100,000 patients like her, entomologists could have asked a question. Does any domestic arthropod produce contact dermatitis in the scalp and skin and allergy in the orifices of the head?

    The answer would be a minor housefly in dipter-cyclorrhapha with wounding larvae small enough to be imitative of invisible mites. The fly that fits the description is a phorid.

    There is a rule in entomology that says that the phorid Megaselia scalaris has three omniverous parasitic instars that do not wound healthy tissue.

    If the oppositie were true, its myiasis would look like contact dermatitis in the skin and scalp and allergy in the orifices.

    The mystery rash in schools epidemic was also contact dermatitis and allergy in the orifices of the head. No one found a pathogen.

    A dipterist should investigate the mystery rash and DOP cases.

    Thank you.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Bell, who tipped us off to Shelomi’s paper, wrote of Traver’s study earlier this year: It is perhaps one of the most remarkable scientific papers ever published, not, as it turns out, [...]

  2. [...] Bell, who tipped us off to Shelomi’s paper, wrote of Traver’s study earlier this year: It is perhaps one of the most remarkable scientific papers ever published, not, as it turns out, [...]

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