Owen's & Paget's Story: The Discovery of Trichinella spiralis


It was a dark and stormy night. In reality, it was a dark and dreary Monday morning, that February 2 in 1835 when young Jim Paget, a first year medical student at London Hospital Medical School, rushed into the autopsy room at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. The procedure was on-going as he arrived, and the surgeons were not pleased, but not with his tardiness. The 51 yr-old Italian bricklayer who had died of tuberculosis, and that they were now dissecting, also had "sandy diaphragm," a condition that dulled even the sharpest of scalpels. The surgeons hurried the autopsy, since they wanted to finish in time for lunch. Keep in mind that the medical profession neither wore gloves nor washed their hands before eating. No wonder TB was so prevalent among doctors. Well, anyway, when they had all cleared the room, Jim quietly stole back into the autopsy room and removed a small bit of muscle tissue from the diaphragm of the cadaver. He was more than curious as to the nature of sandy diaphragm. Apparently, the rest of the onlookers were not. Paget's curiosity would take him far, but that's quite another story altogether. 

He first examined it with a hand lens he carried for just such an occasion. He thought he saw small worms coiled up inside each nodule and shared his preliminary observations with the only surgeon who apparently was not that hungry, Dr. Thomas Wormald - what an interesting name, considering the circumstances. He informed Wormald of his intention to run the specimen over to the British Museum so that he could give the piece of tissue a closer look under a microscope. 

Arriving at the museum, Paget first went to the Zoology Department, but was informed that the only microscope in the building belonged to the soon-to-become-famous botanist, Robert Brown. Brown had become a local celebrity following the publication of his elegant description of the movement of pollen grains in water that became known forever after as "Brownian" motion. Much later, even Einstein was impressed with Brown's findings and wrote a detailed mathematical explanation of the mechanism. 

After a brief discussion with the botanist-in-residence as to the nature of his visit and his need for a higher power (magnification, that is), he asked Brown whether or not he had ever seen a worm under his microscope, and the reply was a decided, "No, thank God!" Paget then examined the piece of human tissue and saw tiny refractile bodies that sure enough, upon even higher magnification, revealed the presence of coiled worms. Jim went home that night and wrote his older brother, as he had done every night, about the wonderful wee beastie he had just discovered.  

As luck would have it, Wormald was an acquaintance of Richard Owen, the assistant curator at the Royal College of Surgeons, whose place of employment was only several blocks down from The Bart. Wormald walked a second piece of tissue over to Owen after reflecting on Paget's cursory assessment as to its potential medical importance. Owen had access to a first-class microscope and saw the same critters as the young medical student had seen. Unlike Paget, however, Owen wrote up his findings, drew a few pictures (almost to actual size), and went on to present the whole affair before the Royal Society three weeks later, ungraciously giving minimal credit to Paget for his original observations. 

James Paget went on to become Sir James Paget, the famous pathologist, and even had a disease named after him. Frankly, I'd rather have a cure named after me, but such is the world of pathology. Richard Owen also became knighted for his many important contributions to zoology and paleontology. Among his more notable achievements, Owen is credited with having coined the word “dinosaur”, which loosely translates to “terrible or awesome lizard”. Regrettably, he became a bit over-zealous in his opposition to the Darwinian view of creation and evolution, and it eventually cost him his job. Owen, now the director of the British Museum of Natural History, a building he designed and helped to build, was thoroughly discredited regarding his strongly and religiously-based ideas regarding the origins of humans in a famous public debate at the hands of Darwin's bull dog, Thomas Huxley. Today, Owens' statue stands as a foreboding, black presence on the second level above the main floor of the British Museum of Natural History, the tail of the supersaurus pointing directly at him, as if to say: "I told you not to argue with Huxley."  

The rudiments of the life cycle of Trichinella spiraliswere soon unraveled by Rudolf Virchow (see next story) and others. Trichinella spiraliscontinues to hold our interest, both as a nematode parasite with a complex life style and as a thing of utter beauty. 

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James Paget

London Hospital Medical School

Early 18th century microscope

Dr. Robert Brown, discoverer of Brownian motion.

Royal College of Surgeons

Owen's drawings of what he observed under the microscope.

Sir James Paget

Sir Richard Owen

Charles Darwin

Thomas Huxley

British Museum of Natural History

Statue of Sir Richard Owen at the British Museum of Natural History

Tail of Supersaurus pointing at statue of Owen.