Van Helsing's nemesis wasn't so impressive

October 08, 2010
by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor
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.

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.

Manson had a ready volunteer in his servant Huito. Hutio had filariasis and by studying mosquitoes gorged on his blood, Manson was able to confirm his suspicions.

“I shall not easily forget the first mosquito I dissected. I tore off its abdomen and succeeded in expressing the blood the stomach contained,” Manson stated in his journals. “Placing this under the microscope, I was gratified to find that, so far from killing the filaria, the digestive juices of the mosquito seemed to have stimulated it to fresh activity.”

For being so close to the target, Manson ultimately fell just short with part of his deduction. He believed the mosquitoes transferred the disease from victim to victim by laying eggs and contaminating drinking water. It would be a few years before Thomas Bancroft would posit the theory that the infection was transmitted directly by the insects when they fed on blood.

Still, Manson had made a major impact and had many other discoveries to his credit. He would go on to discover the lung fluke and a number of skin diseases, and his theories and research would contribute significantly to the discovery of the mosquito’s role in malaria.

He published the highly regarded Tropical Diseases: A Manual of the Diseases of Warm Climates, founded the world’s first school of tropical medicine in England and helped found the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine in 1907, serving as its first president. He received a knighthood in 1903 and continued his travels and lecturing for years after his retirement, giving his last address at the School of Tropical Medicine in London, just two weeks before his death at the age of 77.

It would be no exaggeration to credit Manson’s research with savings thousands of lives since his momentous discoveries and to rightfully name him the Father of Tropical Medicine.