Sunday, September 11, 2011


No worries, Mary Poppins will make Michael bathe sooner than later,
reducing the length of exposure to carcinogens.

When we were last discussing chimney sweeps, Mary Poppins the movie, and scrotal cancer, I mentioned how unpredictable cancer can be. Often cancer develops years after the exposure that mutates and changes cells so that they eventually become cancerous.

That's what happens with scrotal cancer. Boys sent up those 17th and 18th century chimneys were exposed to the carcinogen (soot), later developing the cancer in adulthood(1). If they continued in the profession as men, protection from soot didn't improve just because they kept their clothes on.  English(2) sweeps of the time wore loose clothing that allowed soot to creep into all sorts of bodily crevices.  

According to Disney, loose clothing was no longer worn by chimney sweeps
such as Bert (Dick Van Dyke) and his cohorts.

How did Percival Pott(3) know to associate scrotal cancer with chimney sweeping? It's a very rare form of cancer, but it happened so frequently amongst the profession that the sweeps had a name for it - Soot Wart!


Onset of the warty growths usually occurs between the ages of 20 and 40. Sometimes the sweeps would just cut the "wart" out by themselves, with a knife - ouch! - and hope for the best. Without some kind of attention, the cancer could eventually spread throughout the inner thigh, invade genitals, and eventually enter the pelvic cavity. What a horrible way to die!

According to A Brief History Of Scrotal Cancer, in Pott's day, 1775, the treatment was surgery without anaesthesia, or applications of a poultice containing arsenic (another carcinogen) that would kill the warty tissue and cause the growth to slough off. Oh-my-gosh! I am grossing myself out! 

If a sweep was "as lucky as lucky can be," to quote Bert, he wouldn't have ignored the earliest stages of soot wart, sought medical attention (such as it was), and be lucky enough to be treated by a doctor/surgeon like Pott.

A carcinogenic magical wonderland of rooftops and products of combustion.

So… this winter, as you cozy up to the fire with a carcinogenic bottle of wine, and some popcorn(4), slip Mary Poppins into your DVD player (Netflix doesn’t stream it yet) and think about how lucky you are that you’re not a chimney sweep like Bert.

1. As stated in the last post, although these boys were all exposed to soot, not all of them would develop the cancer.
2. As opposed to German and other European sweeps who wore tighter clothing and had little or no incidence of scrotal cancer.
4. Remind me later to talk about "Popcorn Lung".

Friday, August 12, 2011


For those of you who still enjoy reading printed ephemera, I Love Bad Movies Volume 4 presents a variety of articles discussing films from or about childhood, adolescence, and those awkward teenage years. With seventy pages of essays and a special feature interview with the director of The Children (1980), this zine makes a great read for adults fascinated or scarred by children's movies such as Troll 2, Mac and Me, and/or The Apple Dumpling Gang.

Go to page 56 and you will find my article, Hot Dogs and Parasites: Advertising Conspiracies Revealed By The Faculty. Yes, it's a long title, but I've been in grad school. What can I do? I describe the link between hotdogs, alien parasitism, and diuretics in Robert Rodriguez's movie, The Faculty. The essay was inspired by my friend Todd Alcott, who worked on the feature and made a short film about pathology and hotdogs.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Not quite Mary Poppins...

The luck o' the chimney sweeps must have rubbed off on me last night. It was the perfect evening! First I posted part one of my blog about Mary Poppins, chimney sweeps, and scrotal cancer in the 18th and 19th century, then I found a charming movie full of infantile humor about two criminals who's activities contributed to the creations of England's Anatomy Act of 1832.

I ask you, what is funnier that a corpse with his crotch in the air?
(Image from here.)

Which movie was this? John Landis' Burke and Hare! What fun(1)! Of course, in real life, the Williams Burke and Hare murdered 16 people(2) to sell to an Edinburgh anatomy school for dissection. If you think teachers have a hard time getting classroom supplies these days, try being an anatomist in the 19th century. There were not enough bodies of executed criminals to go around, and market demand was high.

An example of the shoddy quality of cadavers available
from grave robbers. Ick!

In the movie, Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are bizarrely sympathetic. Although there are some fantastic liberties taken to develop a dynamic plot, occasionally replacing historical accuracy. The film has a number of fine moments that communicate the culture of medical education at the time.

Tim Curry (love him!) is also in the film.
There seems to be a running gag about his character and feet.
Could it be a reference to Daft Jamie, one of B and H's victims?

An excellent read on the history of medicine, death, poverty, and criminality in pre-20th century England is Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Chapter 16 focuses on our heroes Burke and Hare, but if you read all 450-odd pages, you will have an appreciation for the culture from which Burke and Hare arose as they took the profession of the Resurrectionist to its next logical incarnation. An added perk is that the movie contains a lot of visual references that can be appreciated more fully if you do a little homework.

1. It's humorous only if you think it's funny when people have the contents of chamber pots thrown on their heads, or when a barrel containing a corpse gets away from our heroes and rolls through the city streets, or if you can see the lighter side of smothering someone to death.
2. Two old men, two handicapped youths, and 12 women, according to Ruth Richardson.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


(Sorry Gang! I lost the formatting war with this post...)

Dick Van Dyke as Bert

The other day I found myself thinking about Bert (Dick Van Dyke), the happy-go lucky, charismatic chimney sweep from the film Mary Poppins.

Bert considers himself rather lucky. As an early 20th century working man, immersed in the products of combustion (namely soot) with (supposedly) better hygienic practices than his 18th and 19th century chimney sweep counterparts, he probably is luckier than his professional forefathers were.

Doctor Pott, I presume.

In 1775 Percival Pott described the first malignant disease connected with a specific occupation. What, you ask, was this occupation? Chimney sweeping. And what was the occupational disease associated with it? Why, scrotal cancer!

Being a chimney sweep in 18th century London was a living hell, particularly for young boys drafted into profession. These boys were forced to crawl up the chimneys in order to clean them out. According to a fabulous article, A Brief History Of Scrotal Cancer, 17th and 18th century chimneys were narrow and crooked. You couldn’t get the cleaning equipment through the steeply angled 9x14” spaces. So what to do? Send a boy up there, of course… naked!

According to the article, many boys would get stuck in the chimney and suffocate from inhaling too much soot. Then they’d have to call a brick mason, to get the dead body of the child out. Sometimes these boys were sent into the chimney to put out fires!

If a boy survived his chimney adventures, eventually he’d grow to be too big to go up the chimney himself. In 1842 an Act was passed to keep boys out of chimneys, although the custom continued for another twenty years. Bert’s grandfather may have been one of the boys sent up the chimney.

What does a naked boy crawling in a chimney have to do with scrotal cancer? These kids were exposed everywhere to soot, smoke, and carcinogenic products of combustion.

Run away little Michael... run!


Carcinogens cause cancer by mutating cells or altering their metabolisms. There are all sorts of carcinogens - tobacco, some forms of salted fish, some hepatitis viruses, alcoholic drinks, cell phone radiation, coal and wood smoke, soot, etc. Sometimes it seems like everything is carcinogenic.

The soot-covered Bert shakes hands with the tobacco smoker.

Good luck will rub off! (Or be inhaled!)

Although cancer is a common event, it can be somewhat unpredictable. A person might be exposed to a carcinogen, their cells altered, and the cancer won’t show up until years later. Additionally, not everyone exposed to the carcinogen is guaranteed to develop cancer. Some people might be genetically predisposed to developing it, or a person might need to be exposed to the agent in a specific way. Other people might not develop tumors after the same type of exposure as someone who develops cancer.

Which of these men will develop lung or scrotal cancer?

Next time... the name the chimney sweeps gave this form of cancer, plus a description of 18th century treatment for this disease!

Friday, June 17, 2011


A new Conan movie is coming out! I am looking forward to that, let me tell you. I watched some trailers - "I live, I love, I slay, and I am content!" August can't get here fast enough! But first, let's talk a little bit about an aspect of the first Conan movie that keeps me entertained every time I see it.

Conan The Barbarian (1982) (Arnold Schwarzenegger) grows from a unformed slave youth into a massive, hulking warrior with huge muscles, incredible strength, and more huge muscles. How does Conan become so powerful? Partially through his genetic inheritance, and partially though athletic training(1). A major component of Conan's training consists of years of pushing a heavy mill wheel called The Wheel Of Pain, an apt description for the way some of us feel about exercise.

The Wheel Of Pain at sunset.

Conan starts pushing the Wheel as a child. Through the miracle of time-lapse photography, we watch Conan mature as he pushes and pushes that wheel. At first, we see that he is one of many children engaged in this physical activity. As years go by, the children grow, improving in strength or dying of exhaustion, and fewer of them are left to move the wheel.

Conan the boy is chained to the Wheel.

Conan the man, training upper pecs and anterior deltoids.

More years go by and the group of pushers grows smaller and smaller, until one day only Conan is left at the Wheel Of Pain. Conan has grown into the perfect physical specimen: powerful, focused, and with minimal additional training, a glorious fighting machine.
Conan the warrior. Look at that... sword!

Assuming Conan ate nutritious meals, performed a physical warm-up before pushing all day, stretched regularly, and adhered to a periodized (Wheel Of Pain) program to optimize strength and cardiovascular gains, this forced enslavement at the Wheel in order to turn someone into a barbarian Adonis among men makes perfect sense. Except for one vital flaw(3) - SPECIFICITY.

Your muscles adapt to exercise (or work) as you stress them at increasing levels of intensity. This adaptation results in an increase in strength and an increase in size (although usually not an increase of Conan-like proportions.) Conversely, if you were to stop stressing a set of muscles, they would weaken and get smaller.

Your body also adapts to the specific types of exercises you do. On a basic level, if you do a bunch of push ups every day, it will probably be easier to push a baby's stroller but not to lift a suitcase. Why? Because you have only trained the muscles in your shoulders and arms that perform pushing/stroller activities, not pulling/suitcase actions.

In the movie, we see that Conan, our future governor of California, has an extremely well balanced physique. Indeed, pushing the Wheel would give anyone excellent calves, quads, and glutes. But in his upper body, Conan has a set of exceptional biceps brachii that would not be that hypertrophic in comparison to his triceps brachii. The biceps are pulling muscles flexing the elbow, the triceps are pushing muscles, straightening it.
An image of the biceps and triceps brachii from The Encyclopedia of Science site.
On the left, the biceps is contracting and flexing the elbow. On the right the triceps
is contracting and extending the elbow.
Warning: these images are extremely inaccurate regarding
the muscle attachments, but work great for location and visualizing how they move the elbow.

You need a good set of biceps to hold up a broadsword, and we're supposed to believe that Conan got them from only pushing the Wheel Of Pain. They must have cut some footage, in editing the film, of Conan pulling the wheel to break up the monotony of his day.

Conan (Schwarzenegger) and his biceps examine the scapula of
an opponent in battle.

Sometimes I fantasize about what Conan/Schwarzenegger would really look like if he had really only been pushing for years and years. Hm... he'd probably have great upper pecs, serratus anterior, anterior deltoids, and triceps. But his back musculature (trapezius, erectors), and his biceps and probably latissimus (yes, I know someone is going to want to argue over this muscle) would be comparatively puny.

Is anyone good at photoshop?

1. ...and possibly with a little help from steroids.
2. Click here for a PDF put out by ACE that gives a simplified explanation of periodization for fitness training.
3. Okay, okay. There are many vital flaws. Pushing a wheel for years will improve cardiovascular health and facilitate fat burn, for sure. But you're really going to be training those muscles (including your heart) exclusively for aerobic/endurance activities, like pushing a wheel all day. Power training is not the Wheel's forte, and fighting requires power (and speed, coordination, agility, etc.)

Sunday, January 30, 2011



If there's one theme that is irresistible to Hollywood filmmakers and myself, it's parasites. You might counter this assertion by asking, "What about mutant viral epidemics? They are very popular, you know." That's true, but I think that nothing says science fiction like a parasitic infection, usually because mind control is part of the mix. We should also keep in mind that microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, and protozoa are technically parasites too, and that many of those microbes assert control over their victims, both in the movies and in real life(1). Therefore, it all boils down to parasites. They're everywhere!

The Puppet Masters book by Robert Heinlein was one of my favorites when I was a kid. To my delight, it was turned into a movie in 1994. What, exactly are Puppet Masters? They are alien hive-mind creatures, consisting of many individual slug-like organisms creating a collective consciousness. For you (movie) trivia buffs, these parasites are 60% brain tissue, according to government experts.

A "slug" resting quietly on a window pane. All brain, no brawn.

The individual organism appears to be something like a cross between a manta ray and a slug. It has a powerful tentacle so strong it can punch through wood. The tentacle disturbingly, resembles a (huge) erect male dog phallus.

Recruitment of a new host. Ouch!

It inserts this appendage through the host's tissues, insinuating an extension of itself into the right and left hemispheres of the cerebrum, to the cerebral cortex.

Here is a picture of the cortex.

The superficial (outer) part of the cerebrum is called the cerebral cortex. It's the area of the brain controlling memory, interpretation of sensory input, cognition, language, and willed movement. So it makes sense that this is the part of the brain the creature would want to interface with.

A puppet master insinuating itself into a victim's cerebrum.

Once ensconced in the host, the creature can access the person’s entire history and psyche, it knows the host intimately and communicates this information to it’s fellow parasites via an intertwining tendril system. This communication feature causes me to wonder if this movie may have inspired the inter-tendrilly communication of the Navi in Avatar. But I digress.


The human hosts are cognizant of this group-mind-knowledge, so everyone knows everybody else’s closest secrets. All dirty laundry is aired in the onslaught of the alien invasion. I’m not sure why government agencies want to save the people infected by the slugs. They now know all the state secrets, held in the minds of hapless government agents hosting the parasites. It seems that the FBI would want to kill all the people hosting slugs, for knowing too much. It's like a giant, psychic Wikileaks(2)!

Julian Assange: the real-world equivalent of a hive-mind parasitic space alien?


The parasite controls its host’s speech and movements. It also apparently increases the host body’s output of adrenaline (the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine). Since the creature controls the brain, this could be done by causing a part of the brain called the hypothalamus to stimulate the adrenal medulla(3), via nerve impulses, creating a sympathetic nervous response in the body. This sympathetic system is often called the stress response or the fight-or-flight response because it pumps you up and gets your ready to kill, be killed, or run for your life.

How this sympathetic nervous system stimulation assists the alien creatures in over-riding the conscious control of its host is beyond me.

The fight-or-flight response prepares your body for immediate physical activity and the possibility of mortal injury. Respiration increases. Blood gets directed towards your brain (more for the slug!) and muscles. Blood is directed away from digestive and sexual organs. There will be plenty of time for eating and fornicating if you live through the immediate crisis. Blood volume goes up and the blood is altered so that it will clot more easily. Your heart rate increases, pupils dilate, and you sweat from all this increased metabolic activity.

However, in the movie, every parasitized human has no armpit stains and is breathing quite normally. They look quite calm, which doesn’t quite coordinate with the image of a person with a bunch of adrenaline pumping around in their bloodstream.

How can this be the look of a child ready to kill or be killed?

1. For more on microbial mind control, see the toxoplasma gondii references in my October 7, 2010 post.

2. It is impossible to know whether or not Julian Assange gets his information from infection with psychic alien invaders or a collection of uninfected humans, but the results do demonstrate some interesting parallels...

3. The adrenal medulla is a part of the adrenal gland, an organ that secretes hormones, sitting on top of your kidneys.