A Hairy Situation

My latest piece for C&EN deals with a pretty common problem: hair loss. Researchers at Columbia University believe they may have found a new topical application for already FDA-approved drugs that seems to regrow hair on mice and on human skin grafted onto mice.Christiano_mice


Traditional Burial Alternatives: Kicking the Bucket the Green Way

by Grace Raver, Cody Sullivan, and Judith Lavelle If you’re anything like us, this week’s wintry forecast probably has you thinking about two things: the ecological integrity of our fragile planet and the inevitable unraveling of our fragile human existence. So why not learn more about both by watching this informative and entertaining video on environmentally-friendly traditional burial alternatives?

Upset you weren’t accosted on the street by our very own Cody Sullivan? Put in your two cents about the big sleep by taking our four-question survey. As of today, the results are as follows: dying today   ever heard of   what would you do

Below are our top-five favorite responses of alternative methods we didn’t even think of…

5. “Simple no-coffin burial in unmarked plot. Seedlings tucked inside body wrapping (linen). Launch body with trebuchet to hit grave.”

4. “Chopped up and carried off by Tibetan vultures.”

3. “Displayed prominently in Macy’s window.”

2. “Stuffed and Mounted?”

and last but not least…

1. “Ashes mixed with clay/porcelain used to make hundreds of Precious Moments™ figurines.”

Was it a fungus that hung us?

Did ergotism lead to the Salem Witch Trials?

by Judith Lavelle


The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 remains the Massachusetts town’s darkest and most infamous memory. Legend (and historical record) holds that when a group of adolescent girls began convulsing and experiencing “spectral visions,” they claimed they were being tormented by certain Salem townsfolk practicing witchcraft. The village’s leaders famously believed them, and the consequent trials led to the hanging of 19 “witches” from June to September of that year. Historians have since proposed several explanations for the girls’ unusual “bewitched” behaviors, including teenage mischievousness and mental illness. Still, some people maintain that the culprit was a hallucinogenic fungus lurking in the villagers’ rye crop. Could the girls have confused the effects of the fungus—a disease called ergotism—with witchcraft?

Probably not.

Ergot on Rye, fig. 17. Ergot on Lolium, fig. 18 Drop of honey dew on Lolium, fig. 19. Ergot and Ergotism George Barger Published: 1931

Ergot on Rye, fig. 17.
Ergot on Lolium, fig. 18
Drop of honey dew on Lolium, fig. 19.
Ergot and Ergotism
George Barger
Published: 1931

The behavioral psychologist Linnda Caporeal proposed the “ergotism theory in 1976, speculating that the girls “bewitched” in Salem actually fell victim to Claviceps purpurea—a fungus that can grow in the wild rye the settlers would have eaten. The theory is compelling, and many still latch onto it to explain the colonial community’s horrific response. Proponents of the theory reason that, as in ergotism, the girls “bewitched” in Salem experienced seizure-like symptoms and hallucinations, and records suggest that the weather may have been humid enough that year for the growth of ergot-infested rye. But historians largely agree that the evidence leaves the fungus as innocent as those poor “witches.”

A stone at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial remembering Sarah Good.

A stone at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial remembering Sarah Good

For one, the symptoms of witchcraft in 1692 Salem are missing key characteristics seen in documented cases of ergotism outbreaks (one occurred in France in 1951). Ergotism patients suffer the effects of several toxic substances produced by Claviceps purpurea—only some of which, chemical precursors to the hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), would have caused the victims’ “visions.” The other fungal poisons cause less fascinating but more grisly symptoms that were never documented in Salem villagers or their livestock: like vomiting, infertility and constricted blood vessels that can ultimately lead to the loss of limbs.

But if ergotism didn’t spur the panic of 1692, then what did? The problem was likely lurking in the town’s sociology rather than its agriculture. In a true ergotism outbreak, the disease would afflict the youngest and most vulnerable in the population—not the relatively healthy teens who levied the accusations. But according to historical records, the only individuals who seemed to be affected by the twitching curses and visions were those old enough to understand what witchcraft was.

A courtroom scene at the Salem Wax Museum

A courtroom scene at the Salem Wax Museum

In fact, most of the accusers were from separate socio-economic groups than those accused. Some of the “witches” that eventually swung were women with less-than-Puritan reputations or community members who had stopped attending church—in other words, easy targets for prosecution by the powerful theocrats in colonial Massachusetts’s justice system.

It is tempting to defer the blame to a disease rather than the early societies that make up our national heritage, but the ergotism theory seems to be an example of science providing a poor excuse for human beings behaving badly.

Old Burying Point Cemetery in Salem, MA

Old Burying Point Cemetery in Salem, MA

Special thanks to Marilynne K. Roach, historian and author of Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and to Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist at the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Population Control: Not Ebola… But Not Science Fiction Either

Yesterday, The New York Times took an interesting angle on the recent, media-consuming Ebola epidemic. After continuously consulting the experts and the people on the scene, the Times decided to review the “fringe” interpretation of the tragedy in an article aptly titled, “The Ebola Conspiracy Theories.” The dominant theory, echoed in the Liberian newspaper The Daily Observer and on Chris Brown’s Twitter account, is that the epidemic is an intentional incidence of population control–making the virus itself a bioweapon intended to carryout a massive genocide.

Just to be clear: like many journalists, experts, politicians, victims and casual observers, I don’t buy into this theory. But I am a bit discouraged by the diction some have used to dismiss it–Politico even labeled it “crazy.” While a sophisticated analysis reveals that Ebola would make a poor choice for a bioweapon (it spreads inefficiently and is difficult to produce in a lab setting), generally categorizing all paranoia about population control as batty borders on the offensive. Various groups have been subjected to government-sanctioned depopulation through medical means, and you don’t have too look far back in U.S. history (let alone world history) to find them.

A Politico article identifies some "crazy" theories on Ebola's origin and implications.

A Politico article identifies some “crazy” theories on Ebola’s origin and implications.

In colonial America, British settlers at Fort Pitt took advantage of the Native Americans’ lack of immunity to smallpox by offering the blankets and handkerchiefs of smallpox patients to visiting chiefs in 1763. Historians debate how widespread the practice of intentionally distributing smallpox-exposed materials to Native American populations was, but correspondence between British officials reveal that the intent to harm was certainly there. Said one British commander to a colonel: “You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

The United States also has a long history of controlling certain populations through forced sterilizations. As recently as the 1970s, laws at the state level allowed some medical and penal institutions to sterilize those under their care considered to have disabilities or criminal characteristics that could undesirably enter the gene pool. In 1926, this practice was deemed constitutional in the Supreme Court case, Buck v. BellAnd though this seems horrific enough, some people assert that proponents of forced sterilization targeted not only the disabled and incarcerated but also racial minorities. Even today, some victims of this practice are still advocating for visibility and reparations.

Emma (right) and Carrie Buck (left) lost a Supreme Court case that upheld Virginia's right to authorize Carrie's forced sterilization because of her mental disability.

Emma (right) and Carrie Buck (left) lost a Supreme Court case that upheld Virginia’s right to authorize Carrie’s forced sterilization because of her mental disability.

So while Ebola is more than likely off the hook as a means of population control, the historical context certainly gives credence to why some fear the idea in the first place. As New Jersey City University English professor James F. Broderick told The New York Times, “Conspiracies against the powerless tend to be effective [theories] because the masses often feel that way.” And it’s important to remember that, for “the powerless,” that feeling is often pretty justified.

Overcoming the Ick Factor

by Judith Lavelle

A new treatment reminds us that pushing past squeamishness can be a medical necessity.


Over the past few days, a good amount of Twitter users, a few of my Facebook friends and apparently NPR have embraced the charming phrase “frozen poop pills” to describe a promising new treatment for Clostridium difficile infections. The capsules, which indeed contain frozen human feces, have helped a small sample of patients overcome the chronic diarrhea that can prove fatal to many C. diff sufferers and that has become increasingly difficult to manage with antibiotics.

As exciting as this progress is, hope and excitement haven’t exactly been the only reactions people have had. When The New York Times reported the story, I was struck by what one C. diff patient, identified simply as “Deirdre,” had to say about the life-saving cure:

“If this is a treatment that was 90 percent effective and you can get over the gross factor, it seems to be kind of a no-brainer.”

— “A Promising Pill, Not So Hard to Swallow” by Pam Belluck

Well put. In some ways, this new pill represents an interesting set back for an evolved response. Most human beings are disgusted by certain bodily fluids and creepy insects because that revulsion keeps us safe. Were we to normally sample human waste or even let disease-carrying rodents dwell in our homes, we would be more likely to pick up nasty germs. In this case, modern medicine has turned the tables: let your revulsion call the shots, and those germs might get the best of you. But are these “frozen poop pills” alone? Not at all. Patients and doctors have had to employ their higher faculties and push past squeamishness throughout the history of medicine.

A maggot illustration from the "The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal" (1858).

A maggot illustration from the “The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal” (1858).

Granted, some treatments–like urine baths for bad skin or consuming rotten mice to stop bedwetting–have fallen out of favor for being unsubstantiated as well as unsavory. But other “gross” treatments are very much in use. For example, doctors sometimes prescribe “fecal transplants” for particularly stubborn cases of antibiotic-resistant C. diff. Just like the pills, these enemas of donated fecal matter help restore healthy gut bacteria… but they don’t make for good table conversation.

Likewise, the medicinal properties of some creepy crawly animals may be able to step in when more traditional cures fall short. Maggots can be surprisingly adept at clearing dead, infection-prone tissue from healing wounds, and with antibiotic resistance on the rise, perhaps we’ll be seeing more of them. Leeches, too, can be useful; in rare but demonstrated cases, surgeons employ them to suck on the area of operation, and the leeches’ natural secretions prevent blood clots from forming.

"Leech dance." by Flickr user Thejaswi

“Leech dance.” by Flickr user Thejaswi

Even if you find anti-clotting leeches or “frozen poop pills” unbelievably disgusting or even darkly amusing, I think you have to agree they’re a testament to the medical community’s commitment and creativity. And after all–it’s a give and take. Sure, feces capsules might turn your stomach… but they might save your life.