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Notable Notes |

Pediculosis in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

Sarah A. Fantus, BA1; Richard J. Pollack, PhD2; Scott A. Norton, MD, MPH3
[+] Author Affiliations
1Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, DC
2Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
3Washington Hospital Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150(2):162. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.9360.
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After an unfortunate series of events—namely, torment by the little people of Lilliput, escape, stormy diversion of his voyage home, and, finally, abandonment—Gulliver ends up in Brobdingnag, a curious land occupied by giants, 12 times the size of Gulliver, you, and me. And so, Gulliver has the opportunity (or misfortune) of examining everything and everyone in a more intimate capacity than normally possible. What does he see?

The description of lice “crawling on their clothes” tells us these were body lice (Pediculus humanus corporis) as opposed to head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis). This important distinction had not yet been made at the time of Gulliver’s trip in 1703. Linnaeus first recognized 2 subspecies of Pediculus humanus in 1761, naming them as indicated in 1778. This distinction is important medically because epidemic typhus, trench fever, and louse-borne relapsing fever are transmitted by body lice, not head lice.

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Hooke’s Illustration of a Louse in Micrographia.2

This illustration may have influenced Jonathan Swift’s description of the Brobdingnagian louse.

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