This post departs from the usual because it’s not directly related to an advertised remedy, and no one involved is out to make money from selling cures. While I was researching the Sugar Plums for Worms, however, I came across many interesting stories showing the impact of parasites on individuals’ health, and the heroic efforts those individuals made to cure themselves. A mere two cases are given here – there are many more. I was intending to describe a third, but it was one that made even me feel sick.

In early 1757,  (though the case was not published until 1785 in the Medical Transactions of the College of Physicians, London), Daniel Neal, of Doddlestone in Cheshire, was

…attacked with uncommon pains in his stomach, attended with nausea, vomiting, constipation of the bowels, and an almost total loss of sleep and appetite. Under these circumstances he soon became greatly emaciated, and could neither stand nor walk uprightly ; his belly grew small and hard, and so closely contracted, that the sternum covered the navel in such a manner, it could with difficulty be discovered or felt with the finger; his urine was always milky, and soon deposited a thick white sediment; his excrements were very hard and lumpy, resembling those of sheep, only of a brown color, nor had he ever a stool of that kind without some medicine or other to procure it.

He continued in this state for some years, eventually going to hospital in 1761 and spending seven weeks there before giving up and going home. The following Christmas, he was advised by a neighbour to drink salt and water, so he immediately gave it a try, dissolving two pounds of salt  in two quarts of water and downing the lot in under an hour. The effect was rapid – he threw up ‘about half a pint of small worms, part ascarides, and the rest resembling those worms which are called the botts, and frequently met with in the stomach of horses, only much smaller, and about the size of a grain of wheat.’

More worms made their exit in the other direction but the salt affected the patient with ‘a most troublesome dysuria and strangury.’ Thankfully, this soon abated, and the undefeated Mr Neal repeated his adventure, ‘the effects of which were nearly similar to the former, only, that most of the worms were now burst, and came away with a considerable quantity of slime and mucus.’ ..

Five days after his first go at the treatment, Neal was up and about. He soon recovered completely, though he took the precaution of drinking salt water every so often, just in case.

A few years before Neal’s ordeal, in 1750, a ‘Gentleman at Lyons’ wrote to the Gentleman’s Magazine with an account of how he had rid himself of his tapeworm after years of unsuccessful medical treatment that had parted him only from his money, not from his passenger. Having determined that he would rather ‘die by poison, which I might ignorantly swallow in my search for a remedy, than to languish so long in bed,’  the gentleman set about recklessly eating every herb he could find, but nothing worked. At length, he decided drastic measures were called for.

Convinced that tapeworm (then more commonly called flatworms or broadworms) were oblivious to medicines because their heads were safely buried in the intestinal wall, the gentleman fashioned ‘some small hooks of lead, with 3 points, like an harping iron, and fastened them with a piece of thread to a leaden bullet, in order to swallow them.’..This innovative method

…brought away many pieces of these worms, without producing any ill effects, except that when the worms were entangled in the hook, they made such efforts to disengage themselves, as threw me into great agonies.

After moderate success, the gentleman redesigned the hook, attached it to a piece of thread like a fishing line and swallowed it, keeping hold of the end. His witnessing friends had

…such a compassionate sense of my sufferings and danger that, to avoid the pain of attending the issue of so dangerous an experiment, they chose rather to leave me, than to remain near enough to afford me such assistance as I might need.

Unable to pull the hook back up, he swallowed it, and at length it reappeared at the other end of his digestive system accompanied by a worm described – rather traumatisingly – as being 30 ells long with a head like a cat. Further use of the hooks eventually cured him. He concluded his account with:

The author of this letter has much more to add, both concerning the symptoms of this malady and method of cure, but feared to be tedious; he kindly intimates a readiness to satisfy those whose curiosity or distress may make them desirous of further information.


  1. Trolling for tapeworms with a treble hook and a bullet for a sinker. I can imagine the the frustration that might lead one to consider such insanity, I cannot see surviving the shredding – ouch

  2. Thanks for all the comments – sorry for delay in replying but I’ve been away for a couple of days.

    The third case might well make an appearance at some point – I’m thinking of starting a section of the site for transcripts of accounts of unusual medical cases and surgery, the more revolting the better!

  3. If you are looking for suggestions, mine would be to look for accounts of surgery for strangury (bladder stone). I am not very squeamish, but the thought of instruments being passed through an unanaethized urethra makes me press my knees very closely together. Women might have more extreme feelings about labour where delivery is obstructed.

  4. Great Stuff.Have you ever been to The Welcome Museum in London? Some interesting stuff there.
    I have read a few articles on Liver Flushing. have you ever come across that practise? Seems like there’s a debate about whether it’s a genuine procedure or a myth. Anyway, top blog. Thanks.

  5. Hi Mark, yes I’ve been to the Wellcome Collection but not for a while – I’d like to go again soon. The Hunterian Museum is another good one.

    I hadn’t heard of liver flushing – a very quick Google search suggests it’s a recent thing, but if I find anything historical about it I’ll look into it further.

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