Today, reflections on fear, loathing, and maggots.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Ask yourself what it takes
to make a thing loathsome. That question took shape
for me when I read a recent article in the
Wall Street Journal on the use of
maggots to eat away infection in a wound. Can
anything be as loathsome as the idea of dumping
maggots into the festering wound of a patient!
Yet turning a loathsome idea into a friendly one is
where creativity begins. Fear and loathing are
interwoven. So it is with any creative enterprise.
We must make friends with the many-tentacled alien
idea. We must breach our terror. That's why this
new therapy attracts me. I really do loathe
Dawn Blalock, writing for the Wall Street
Journal, tells about Harold Taylor, a
diabetic suffering from gangrene -- beyond
antibiotics. Taylor was about to lose his leg.
But Taylor is one of hundreds of people whom Dr.
Ronald Sherman has been treating with maggots.
Sherman breeds blowflies in putrid liver. He
sterilizes the eggs so the maggots won't grow into
flies. He planted those newborn bugs, about a
millimeter long, in Taylor's wound and wrapped it
Gauze let the maggots breathe. Taylor could watch
them at work. They fed on the infection, growing to
a full centimeter. He said he could feel them
gnawing and scratching. But it didn't bother him --
after he'd passed the first psychological hurdle.
There's more. Maggots leave behind a kind of
ammonia-like excretion that disinfects the wound.
The healing is cleaner and more complete than it
would be after surgery. In the end, those maggots
have saved Taylor's leg.
Last night I went to a computer index of current
medical articles and found a set on maggots --
their biochemistry and their role in healing. That
role has been known for a long time. Napoleon's
battle surgeon pioneered their use. A few doctors
were still using maggots just before WW-II. But we
dropped the whole business like a stone when we
discovered the new wonder drugs -- sulfa and
penicillin. We dropped it until just now.
It all reminds me of my time in graduate school. I
liked to work out on a diving board. The hardest
thing I did was my first back flip, heaving myself
backward into space I couldn't see. That terrifying
-- and loathsome -- offense to my own body was the
price I had to pay for the exhilaration I so craved
It takes creative fearlessness to return to this
remarkable technology of healing. This particular
back-flip off the high board is one we'd really
rather not even contemplate. And those friendly
little worms make a powerful parable about our
natural fear of undertaking creative change.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Blalock, D., Grubby Little Secret: Maggots Are Neat
At Fighting Infection. Wall Street
Journal, January, 1995. (incomplete citation.)
I am grateful to Roger Eichhorn, Dean of
Engineering at UH, for suggesting the idea and
providing the article.
A maggot must be born i' the
rotten cheese to like it.
(Mary Ann Cross)
Larvae of Cyclorrhapha are maggots or grubs,
Encylopaedia Britannica, 1970
with no distinct head; mouth-hoods working
vertically, and usually two spiracles post-
Larvae of flies have adapted themselves to
an extraordinary range of food-materials,
perhaps greater than those of any other
order of insects. A great many feed in
decaying vegetable materials, leaf-mold,
rotting wood or fungi. Some attack healthy
plants ... others feed in dung, carrion,
or wounds and fetid discharges. ...
Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood.
Have you not maggots in your brains?
Beaumont and Fletcher
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.