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.

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“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.

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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?

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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