Poop, Piles, and Parasites: Outlander and Outhouses

June 4, 2014 in Resources and Research by M C

How An Outhouse Saved Outlander..

Parasites.  We’re going to talk about… parasites.  Run away.  Run away now…

Blood Flukes are related to tapeworms.  Their eggs start out in the water, and once they’re to the swimming stage, they start looking around for.. a human.  Eventually you, the blood fluke find a foot, melt a tiny bit o’ flesh with an enzime, enter the bloodstream, and start swimming the circulatory system looking for a mate.  Blood of my blood, so to speak.  Blood flukes are surprisingly monogamous and loyal.  They will stay attached together for years, and years, in fact, there are documented cases of blood flukes locked in love for 40 years.  Almost half a century.

Still, loving though the blood fluke is, you probably don’t want them spooning in your veins.  Which is why you shouldn’t walk barefoot through Africa and other tropical countries.

18th century child’s shoes, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of ArtShoes, in the 18th century, were very expensive.  You might have to make a pair of shoes last for years.  So you’d take very good care of them, and spare them when you could.  The simplest way to preserve your shoes was… to not wear them.  Ethan Allen Homestead has a pair of clogs on display, but clogs too were time consuming to make (to say  nothing of not very comfortable), so while they made a rough substitute for leather shoes they too would be pulled on only when necessary.  Moccasins were popular, but the soles were thin and wore quickly.

For women and children bare feet was the footwear of choice during clement weather.  Tootsies happily squishing in mud on a rainy day and stirring up dust on a dry one.  Saving on the shoe leather.

What could possibly go wrong?

In the beginning of the 20th Century J D Rockefeller started looking at the southern United States.  His question?  Why was the southern economic engine not turning over?  Why were farms and workers not producing more?  Rockefeller sent a commission of economists and social workers into the south to study the problem and the commission came back to report that southerners seemed if not “lazy” then physically slower than their northern counterparts.  They appealed pale, lethargic, and old before their time.  Not lazy.. sick.

And then someone remarked these southerners looked anemic.  Rockefeller sent down a second commission, this time made up of doctors to study the problem.  They discovered that the poorer your farm, the healthier you and your children were likely to be. If you lived on poor, clay, soil?  Bare feet worked well for you.  If you lived on good farmland, with sandy, loamy soil?  Bare feet proved to be disastrous.

Obviously there was something in the soil.  What was in the soil?  Hookworms.

Hookworms are carried in the gut, and they’re excreted when you.. excrete.  So another wave of researchers went out and started asking people “where do you.. er.. go?”

“Over there.. by that tree.”

“Do you wear shoes when you go?”

“No.. why should I?”

Because nobody intentionally steps in it, right?  Which means.. hookworms can crawl. 

So they set up the sandbox experiment.  In the middle they put a pile o’ poop.  Then every day they tested the sandbox to see how far the larvae wandered from their original source looking for a victim.

On day one.. they’d made it out a foot, all around.

On day two.. they’d made it to two feet out.

By day three.. they were three feet away, or could be found in a six foot circle.

And on the fourth day, they were a full four feet, in an eight foot diameter circle around the original source.  And there they stayed, and by the seventh day they were dead.

Rockefeller’s Sanitary Commission’s high tech solution to hookworms is called “the outhouse.”  A six foot deep pit, two feet deeper than hookworms can slither.

And everywhere you go in the world outhouses, or their equivalent, change lives.  Children are healthier, focus better in school, and live longer.

The simple choice to build an outhouse on Fraser’s Ridge had long term implications for both the physical and the economic health of everyone who had access to this simple innovation, the hole in the ground which eradicated hookworm.

(1) Radiolab Season 6 Episode 3 (proof I don’t make this stuff up)

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