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Van Helsing's nemesis wasn't so impressive

by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor | October 08, 2010
This report originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of DOTmed Business News

Parasitologist Patrick Manson was born in Scotland on Oct. 3, 1844, the second of an eventual nine children. His initial foray into a profession wasn’t a hint at what he would later become or achieve. Manson was apprenticed to an ironmaster’s firm in Aberdeen, Scotland at the age of 15. But poor health forced him to abandon that pursuit and he instead focused his energies on medicine. He proved to be adept and passed his final exams by 20, even though he was required to be 21 to receive his medical degree.

From this promising start in the field, he only increased his stature with a discovery that has led to millions of lives saved over the past century.

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Shortly after receiving his degree, he departed the British Isles to spend more than two decades in China, studying numerous diseases.

Manson began his overseas exploits in Taiwan and after more than a decade, found himself pursuing medicine among the populace of Xiamen, China. The Scot provided what medical services he could to the wary citizens, slowly earning their trust. Eventually, he established enough rapport that he was able to perform a badly needed surgery on a young man burdened with an elephantoid tumor. The successful surgery encouraged many more locals to seek his expert attention. These medical administrations ultimately amounted, according to Manson’s own records, to more than one ton of diseased tissue being removed from patients.

By 1875, determined to learn as much as possible about elephantiasis, Manson returned to England. He was likely dismayed when he learned that there were no answers to be found amongst the English medical community. Still, he persevered in his efforts and came across a promising lead in an unexpected locale — the British Museum. It was there he came across the recounting of findings by Timothy Lewis of the Army Medical Service. While practicing in Calcutta, India, Lewis discovered the presence of a microscopic worm living in the blood and urine of patients with chyluria.

Manson calculated the amount of worm embryos in an infected person’s system at a given time and concluded that the embryos could not all mature into worms in the same host without overpopulating the infected system and killing their host and themselves. Based on the deduction, he searched for a solution that would pass embryos from one host to another.

His solution was found in a bloodsucker rightfully more feared than the literary creation of Bram Stoker . . . the mosquito.