Surgeon P Power's handwriting
Surgeon P Power's handwriting. Image via

Regular readers of The Quack Doctor might remember that back at the end of September last year, I blogged about a news story surrounding the National Archives’ Surgeons at Sea project. The Archives’ press release focused on a 12-year-old Irish girl, Ellen McCarthy, who apparently had the misfortune to vomit up a whopping 87-inch parasitic worm while voyaging to Quebec in 1825.

Except that, in my opinion, she didn’t. To me, it looked as though the ship’s surgeon, Mr P Power, had scribbled his notes so hastily that he made a rather workaday 8½-inch ascarid look like a monster. (Though frankly, chundering up an 8½-inch ascarid would be quite sufficient to fuel a lifetime of nightmares in anyone’s book.)

Over Christmas and New Year, I spoke to a Canadian journalist, Randy Boswell, who had also looked at the digitised records and concluded that the worm was indeed a measly 8½-incher. He contacted the National Archives, who responded politely and promptly, alluding to the possibility that their experts had misinterpreted the records. Randy ran a story across his group of newspapers, complete with quotations from your very own Quack Doctor, and here it is:

Monster parasitic worm may have been only a fraction of the size

Surgeons at Sea is a brilliant project and I own up to being a total killjoy over this one small aspect of it. I love a good story as much as the next person, and I’m glad that this worm captured enough journalists’ imaginations to give Surgeons at Sea so much publicity.

That it turned out to be only 8½ inches might be disappointing, but c’est la vie.




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