Microscopical fever

By Merv Hobden

Dr Crippen has reported on the epidemiology of this little-known malady which, because of the chronic nature of the disease, and its slow, insidious attack, may not be easily recognised.

The earliest manifestations of the disease are quite subtle, and consist of a wild, excited condition in the eyes, and the uttering of a strange cry, ‘en-ay’.

As the disease takes hold, the utterances become more frequent, and behavioural changes occur.

By far the most serious behavioural changes concern a sudden liking for dimly-lit surroundings, the sniffing of substances such as cedar-wood oil, and the collection of mysterious objects that the sufferer insists are of great value.

Dr Crippen is convinced that cedar-wood oil plays a definitive role in the sensitisation of the subject to the disease. He has carried out studies where tiny quantities of the substance were released into the environment of volunteer subjects. Most, sadly, began to show immediate symptoms of the disease where a previously-infected subject was also present. An atmospheric concentration as low as one part per billion was sufficient to cause incurable levels of infection.

The highly-infectious nature of the disease is crucial to its epidemiology. Marked changes in social behaviour occur. The sufferer actively seeks out new victims, mercilessly exposing them to the sensitising agent, cedar-wood oil. The newly infected immediately show the same pattern of changed behaviour, in particular the random collection of objects mysterious to the onlooker. They are driven to return to the source of the infection, where ritual display occurs, along with such utterances as, ‘What a tremendous en-ay!’ and ‘Did you know that he only got to make two of these, before his wife shot him?’

The newly-infected victim’s condition is now incurable. The collection of ritual objects now dominates his life. Examination of the wallets of the incurably infected revealed two conclusive signs of the tertiary stage of the disease. The wallets contained nothing, other than:

  1. A signed photograph of Ernst Abbe
  2. A moth, carefully dissected, and mounted on a slide, with a cover-glass thickness no greater than 0.18 mm.

As the disease advances, the symptoms become pronounced. Some sufferers reach the stage where normal surroundings will no longer support the condition. Dr Crippen reports on one hopeless case where the victim had a Vickers M55 in a Portakabin in his garden. This, combined with Captain Oates syndrome, ‘I am going outside dear, and I may be gone some time.’ is the final, dreadful stage of the disease.

The long-term prognosis is not good – for those who live in close contact with the sufferer. An examination by Dr Crippen of the case histories of some early victims of the disease is fascinating. The earliest known case in the 18th century, Antonie van Leewenhoek, is reported by his daughter to have been displaying full-blown symptomatic behaviour only hours before his death at the age of 92. A 19th century sufferer, Robert Brown, also lived to a very great age. Dr Crippen suspects that this great longevity is significant in the epidemiology of the disease, in that it greatly increases the number of new contacts leading to full-blown infection, thereby ensuring the long-term survival of the disease vector.

M. K. Hobden, January 1995

This article was originally written for Ted Brain’s wife, then came to the notice of Dave Walker, who arranged for it to appear on the Club’s website, then it disappeared during a site revision, and was recovered in 2013 with assistance from Merv and Rob Sareen. Would anyone like to write an article on the perils of eBay for microscopists?

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