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.