a milkman, an artist and a winkle boiler

During the second world war, conscientious objectors  were allowed to choose non combative roles such as ambulance drivers and orderlies. Some also opted to be “human guinea pigs” in medical trials.

image found here

“In early 1941, a dozen male volunteers arrived, suitcases in hand, at the Sorby Institute, a research facility in Sheffield, Yorkshire. They included a milkman, an artist, a maths teacher, a ladies’ hairdresser and a winkle boiler. They were destined to spend the war years allowing themselves to be infected with scabies, undergoing lengthy periods of vitamin deprivation, and taking part in potentially dangerous investigations into how long the body could cope without water.

milko found here

Scabies infestation, or ‘the itch’, then affected about two million Britons. At the time there was no effective cure. In a flash of inspiration, Major Kenneth Mellanby CBE, saw a well of available ‘volunteers’ on whom non-life-threatening experiments could be carried out, fitting in with their pacifism.

He shipped in army bedding previously used by those with scabies, and the volunteers slept naked between the sheets. Others were given unwashed underpants that they wore for a week at a time. Nothing happened.

At a lecture to military officers, Mellanby stated that scabies was contracted by picking up a young adult female which caused the audience to erupt with laughter. He meant a female mite, but the gaffe made him wonder if infected women could be hired to sleep with the volunteers. Would experimental adultery look good in the scientific report?

image found here

Fortunately, before any women were enlisted two volunteers became infected; the combination of close contact and infected underwear had done the trick.

The volunteers had to remain infested for nine months, which must have been a relentless ordeal. Some wandered the corridors naked in the cold air to mollify the itch, probably wondering if life under fire in the Western Desert would not have been easier.

image found here

Treatment started with scalding baths and vigorous scrubbing, followed by a coating of sulphur ointment. The most effective treatment proved to be painting the entire body, except the head, with benzyl benzoate. 

To keep up morale, pacifist meetings were held and allotments maintained. A mock coat of arms was devised depicting a sarcoptes mite atop the motto ‘Itch Dien’.

image found here

Dietary experiments were also carried out, and the effects of vitamin A deprivation were logged. This task required participants to deliver every bowel movement to the lab. In 1943 one final, even more controversial, experiment was undertaken. Aimed at establishing the life expectancy of shipwrecked sailors, it required volunteers to go without water for up to five days. Only lifeboat rations, such as chocolate and dried meat, were allowed.

image found here

The Sorby Institute closed its doors in 1946. Many of the recruits remained until the end, enjoying a kind of macabre bond. A jokey newsletter was produced to help people remain in contact and recount tales of the bizarre years they spent together. Some of the recruits also wrote this poem:

Recondite research on a mite

Has revealed that infections begin

On leave with your wife and your children

Or when you are living in sin.

Except in the case of the clergy,

Who accomplish remarkable feats,

And catch scabies and crabs

From door handles and cabs,

And from blankets and lavatory seats.

image found here

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50 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. These mites and other tiny parasites look like dinosaurs and monsters. I wonder if alcohol bath would have done the trick? Application of mineral spirits or turpentine or a weal bleach solution may have worked but those liquids burn the skin for several layers.

    • An alcohol bath might not have worked but alcohol consumption might have made you forget.

      • The days of kerosene baths have long gone. Except at the Gimcrack, for the recalcitrant 😉

  2. As mothers (everywhere?) used to (still do?) say: “Always wear clean underwear…”

    What is a winkle boiler? Can’t find the definition via Google. Sounds like a name I’d like to use on my kids (we all make use of such lovely terms of endearment) but should probably have my facts straight… 😉

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_periwinkle

      Very popular with the English. Most seaside towns had(have?) whelks n winkles stalls.

      And it’s where the pointy-toe shoes of the 60s, called winkle-pickers, got their name.

      • Thanks dinah!!

      • And I thank you as well!

      • Dinah is a mine of information 🙂

  3. Surely anyone who thinks that conscientious objectors are cowards should read this!

    • Personally, I think I’d rather have gone to war. They underwent some horrible procedures

  4. What a story! I now know what a moulting pouch is and am imagining the slight itch on my leg as something more serious.

    I like the poem’s dig at the supposedly chaste life of the dog-collared.

    • “After the eggs hatch, the larvae migrate to the skin surface and burrow into the intact stratum corneum to construct almost invisible, short burrows called molting pouches. The larval stage, which emerges from the eggs, has only 3 pairs of legs and lasts about 3 to 4 days. After the larvae molt, the resulting nymphs have 4 pairs of legs. This form molts into slightly larger nymphs before molting into adults”

      Molting pouches, stratum corneum, four legged nymphs…… science is quite poetic at times isn’t it?

  5. Hee hee! That little ditty at the end made me giggle.

    • I love to make you laugh syncy xx

  6. They were volunteers and were put through so much. Can’t imagine if they were paid….

    • I’d guess they received a regular soldier’s wage.

      • sounds right to me Nick

  7. I’m sure they were paid millions! Although I would never do it, even for a single million.

    • all the money in the world would not persuade me to live with scabies for nine months. I’d probably donate stool samples for $50,000 though

  8. Do you think they were allowed to drink their own urine as a true shipwrecked sailor would?

    • Maybe they wanted to. Thirst overcomes many barriers

  9. I think it might be fun to dispense orange juice while wearing a cow suit.

    • depends on the weather. and the pay.

  10. Ick, I am scratching now and have an urge to boil wash my bedding…

  11. Completely off topic, but I was doing a search for “nursemaid” and found this, and thought of our myra:

    • Ha! That’s the same image my son used on my homemade birthday card this year!!

  12. I suspect a sustained bout of scabies would be light relief compared to a lifetime career in winkle boiling.

  13. I wonder if any of them wrote a book on their experiences, it would be an interesting autobiography.

    • I read about them in Trevor Norton’s book Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth

  14. The scabies experiment was pretty awful, considering they didn’t know the cure at the time! I thought conscientious objectors got to sit in lounge chairs and sip lemonade, and every so often lazily raise a hand and say, “I object!” At least, that’s what I told my sons. They were so psyched, too! Shame.

  15. So it seems that even though they had been through abject misery, the clergy was still a point of ridicule. Nice to know there are some universal constants.

    The King

    • the clergy will always be a point of ridicule. Oh hang on…. that’s what you were just saying wasn’t it?

  16. whew. with vietnam, it was far easier to just pop into canada.

  17. I knew that American consciencious objectors were imprisoned or compelled to work in mental hospitals during World War II, but I didn’t realize this practice extended to other countries … or that nasty medical experiements were involved!

    • These guys volunteered to be guinea pigs

  18. Wow, what fun. I think I would have preferred to be an ambulance driver.

  19. Sounds like a lovely place! I wish we could send all the Occupy Wall Street whiners there…


    • no it wasn’t reserved. These guys were all from different professions, the thing they had in common was that they were conscientious objectors

  21. I wonder if I could have a one-time affair for scientific research? How could I phrase that to make the idea stick?

    • wear a white coat and use a lot of big words

  22. i can’t deliberately allow myself to be infected with anything. not scabies.

  23. wow um. well it’s my first trip back in a while and i definitely missed you.

    i am also definitely grossed out right now hahaha.

    yea, i might have opted for war. at least then i could hide behind a big pile of sandbags and not be wearing someone elses scabies underware.

    • Hey blunty, nice to see you here again

  24. You’d think that, given my extensive knowledge of all things STD-related (research, not personal experience), nothing would phase me. But for some reason, even just the word “scabies” creeps me out.

    ps. I’m not kidding, you ability to always find the perfect accompanying photo never ceases to amaze me.

    • The photos take longer to find than the stories so thanks for the appreciation B

  25. Is it me, or does that toilet seat look like a vagina?

    • It’s never you, AWC.

      It’s always “us”.

      *pets collection of stray cat hair lovingly*

  26. When I was pre-med, I read stories about folks who did similar things here in the USA. Notably, they would paralyze folks with medicine for a short period of time and stop their breathing, which is where we developed modern CPR.

    I had no idea about the STD studies. I don’t know which one is worse.

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