JANUARY
1989

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-12-89

A Lousy Subject

Few humans could love a louse, especially one of the insect variety.

Most of us find these little creatures quite distasteful. So much so that when we feel a bit under the weather we are apt to describe the condition as "lousy." Many of us have really "loused something up" at some time or another, and all of us have heard a person described as “a real louse."

What are these insects that have come to symbolize the despicable aspects in our lives? Lice can be described as wingless parasites of warm-blooded animals. Hosts include humans and that is where the rub comes in!  To have lice is something to be avoided, or at least not mentioned publicly.

It has not always been so. You see humans have harbored lice for as long as, well, as long as we have been humans. The oldest literature makes reference to lice, including several references in the Bible. Mummies of American Indians, estimated to be several thousand years old, show evidence of lice infestations.

During the Middle Ages, an infestation of lice was considered a sign of good health, an odd notion since lice were responsible for transmitting the disease typhus. Folks probably developed this idea because lice and fleas leave a body very quickly at death ~ sort of the insect equivalent of rats off a sinking ship. 

So prevalent was the association of lice with health that servants, as a sign of hospitality, would capture and toss lice on guests as they passed through the gates of the castle to attend a royal gala. Ladies of fashion of such times used long hair pins to keep their tresses in place. A practical use of these fashion items, it is said, was to dislodge particularly troublesome lice should the creatures manage to create discomfort near the scalp.

Lice also played a political role in the olden days. In Hurdenburg, Sweden, during the Middle Ages, a louse was used to determine the next mayor. Each year the eligible notable men of the town would sit at a round table with their beards touching it. A louse dropped in the center would determine the next mayor by selecting a beard for a home. Sort of the ancient Electoral College, one is to presume.

Lice are still with us. Each year outbreaks of head lice are experienced in schools around the country. These outbreaks, which are most common during winter months, are frequently found among school children in the lower grades. The reason for this is probably the tendency of young children to share winter clothing, especially stocking caps. This allows lice to travel from person to person. Additionally, these youngsters are at an age when parents encourage children to groan themselves, a task which is accomplished a bit haphazardly at times.

Indeed, the great apes and ancient humans engaged in mutual grooming, the primary purpose of which was to remove lice eggs from the hair. These eggs are called "nits,” and the practice of hunting them is called "nit-picking."

So remember the next time you accuse someone of being a "nit-picker," it's probably because they have a lousy job!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew