When we hear that the pubic louse is facing extinction due to brazilian waxing, we forget how much of a scourge it once was. During World War II, the pubic louse threatened the fate of the world. This led to an odd experiment involving construction-working conscientious objectors wearing special underwear.
It was the 1940s, and the world was at war. When it comes to illustrating war as an unglamorous occupation, you can rarely do better than this - the trenches were literally lousy. Large groups of people sleeping alongside each other under rough conditions meant that little visitors could scamper from one soldier to the next, or just lie in wait in one bed for the next soldier to come along. Lice are unpleasant at the best of times. This was not the best of times, and as well as spreading itchy bites, these lice spread typhus.
Typhus is nothing to scoff at today. In the past it has, at various times, devastated cities. Untreated, it can claim up to sixty percent of its victims. There was treatment available, but spreading it through the front lines wasted resources at a time when they were precious. Better to give the soldiers an ounce of prevention instead of a pound of cure. The trouble was, how would anyone get the right kind of prevention?
To test de-lousing powders, doctors first tried recruiting homeless people, but found they were rarely willing to comply with the testing requirements. Conscientious objectors, on the other hand, were much easier to control. During war time, hostility to conscientious objectors was high, even when they volunteered for difficult construction work, or dangerous medical postings in war zones, or even when they put lice in their underwear. In fact, they would have loved to get lice in their underwear. What they actually got was specially-made underwear, pre-seeded with lice and louse eggs. It was heavy, and tight, and they were never allowed to take it off - even while they kept their day jobs of hard labor.
Then came the experimental lice powders. They were as fun as they sound. Let's just say that volunteers with some brands came down with literal scaly scrotums. Others came down with anus rash. All in all, many preferred the lice. Their preferences, and scrotums, turned out to be beside the point in the end. While the lice powders were being tested, a contemporary company came out with a little thing called DDT, which did a crackerjack job of eliminating lice - and a lot of other things - but not humans.
I wonder how soldiers would have reacted to the current method of eliminating lice - ripping all the available louse real estate out by the roots using wax. Maybe they would have preferred scales on their testicles.
Image: Ed Uthman
[Via Mad Science Museum.]