By Stephen D. Bowling
December 27, 1912 – A strange and possibly unbelievable story about our little community was published in the December 27, 1912 edition of The Big Sandy News. This newspaper, published in Louisa, Kentucky, featured a small article on page 8 detailing the work of Dr. Isaac Allen Shirley, who was originally from Winchester.
Dr. Shirley, who worked for the Rockefeller Foundation Fund, had spent several weeks in Breathitt County studying and treating patients who suffered from worm infestations. He reported that his effort in the county had focused on the eradication of hookworms.
The report included specific numbers that Dr. Shirley indicated were shocking. He said that he treated 1,785 people and found that 1,263 were infested with hookworms. He further reported that he found 693 patients that were hosts to hookworm and also a variety of other intestinal parasites.
Dr. Shirley’s report may be shocking to us today but he found similar numbers in Madison County during his visit there in May 1913. He reported that 1,475 people were examined and he found 148 with hookworm and 924 with other intestinal parasites. Shirley found 150 cases in one day in Wolfe County in August 1912.
Hookworms and other intestinal parasites were common in the years before modern medical advances. Most outbreaks or infections occurred in areas where sanitation practices did not meet minimal standards. In communities where outhouses lined every creek, infestations were common. These itchy invaders could also be transmitted by walking barefoot or in soil particles trapped in foods. Patients who had these parasites were often thin as the result of a loss of appetite and extreme weight loss. They can experience breathing complications and exhibit tiredness.
One Breathtit Countian, however, experienced some very different symptoms. Lafferty “Lafe” McKenzie, who lived in Breathitt County for some time working in the log yards, found himself in some trouble in Danville, Illinois. Police arrested McKenzie on January 8, 1912 and hauled him before the Police Judge there on a charge of public intoxication. When called to answer or give a reason why he was drunk, McKenzie informed the Judge that it was not his fault and that he was an innocent man.
McKenzie explained that while living in Breathitt County as a young man he was infected with a tapeworm. He further explained that his tapeworm had “become fond of whisky”. His defense was that he was not an alcoholic but his tapeworm was and his drunkenness was the result of an attempt to pacify his parasite’s taste for the amber liquid. The defendant told the judge that over the past few years he “had a fierce time of it” keeping the tapeworm on the straight and narrow.
After allowing the defendant to explain himself, the judge, not impressed, found McKenzie guilty of the charges leveled at him. In the end, the tapeworm’s wild soiree cost poor Lafe McKenzie a night in jail and $1.40 in fines. His story appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the country detailing his struggles with the worm.
Dr. Isaac Shirley’s efforts to end the hookworm plague continued for the rest of his life. He made several more trips into Breathitt County treating anyone with this and other maladies thanks to the work of the Rockefeller Foundation. Dr. Shirley died on June 5, 1920, at his home in Winchester. He was buried in the Winchester Cemetery. The fate of Lafe McKenzie and his alcoholic tapeworm is not known.
© 2021 by Stephen D. Bowling