Worms of the South

nixon.jpg

Quick, if somebody asked you to describe stereotypes for people from the South, what would you say? Did you say dumbass lazy uneducated hicks? Well congratulations, you’re a fucking terrible person. Wait you might answer, look at all of this data I looked up on my phone showing the southern states have some of the highest poverty rates and lowest test scores in the nation. Good for you, but did you ever stop and wonder why things are that way? No? See, like I said, terrible person. Well, strap in buddy, it’s time for a little edumacating.

Though you can certainly find a few nutjobs, most people can agree that the end result of the Civil War was a good thing. The United States remained a single country and slavery was no longer a thing. However, just because overall something is good, doesn’t mean that some of the finer details can’t be shitty. For instance, it should really be no surprise that the Civil War really fucked up the South. The combination of the Union armies burning everything they could get their hands on, large amounts of property being seized without compensation, and a good chunk of the population of working age men being killed, led to a complete economic collapse. To which the U.S. responded by pretty much saying, “fuck you, you got what you deserved, good luck with all that.” A significant portion of the population, white and black, was left poor as hell, by which I mean being able to read was seen as a rich man’s trait and things like wearing shoes and not shitting in the woods were considered luxuries. So you know, not good.

Well, fast forward to the start of the twentieth century, and large parts of the South were still just as bad as they had been at the end of the Civil War. Even as the United States went through an economic boom, the South stubbornly remained behind in all areas of development. Given that it had been forty years since the war, the educated masses of the time just kind of decided that the South was still poor as shit partly due to their backward way of thinking, but more importantly because they were just plain genetically inferior, this being a time when the idea of eugenics was all the rage. After all, anyone traveling through the South was sure to see thousands of slack jawed yokels, hunched over on porches, scratching their pot bellies, and staring at nothing. Sure, there were some up and coming people down there, but most were idiots. Well, one doctor from New York, a man named Charles Stiles, didn’t think genetics was the reason. In 1902, he did some actual scientific research, and lo and behold he discovered the culprit. A little parasite called a hookworm.

The hookworm is an interesting character who infects people by hanging out in the grass waiting for somebody to step on it. Once stepped on, the hookworm burrows its way into your foot, starts drinking your blood, and then releases its eggs back into the wild via your shit. Funny thing about hookworms, since they were drinking so much blood, people suffering from them often developed symptoms like insatiable exhaustion, trouble thinking, hunched shoulders, and distended bellies. Symptoms could be even worse in children, where stunted growth and delayed cognitive development commonly occurred. You can probably see where this is going. Dr. Stiles discovered that 40 percent of the Southern population was infected with hookworms. The parasite, native to Africa, likely was brought over by the slave trade, where it thrived in the warm moist climate of the South. It was especially prevalent in poor rural areas where a combination of people going barefoot, poorly built outhouses, and free roaming livestock created perfect conditions for hookworms to spread, all things that became extremely common after the Civil War.

So, problem solved. Not really. The Southerners, already living with the stigma of being lazy idiots, didn’t really appreciate the added stigma of being riddled with parasites. Real attempts at eradicating hookworms didn’t begin until 1909, thanks to funding from the billionaire John D. Rockefeller. Doctors roamed the countryside, letting people peer through microscopes at their own shit, handing out free medicine, and giving tips on ways to avoid infection, such as wearing shoes and building better outhouses. Unfortunately, Rockefeller’s efforts only lasted five years, because rich people get bored easily, and though other programs continued the fight, hookworms would remain an issue in the South for decades, not really being brought under control until indoor plumbing and wearing shoes became common place by the 1950’s. Given that this was the United States in the twentieth century, it should go without saying that campaigns to eradicate hookworm mostly focused on the white population, which wasn’t all that great for the black population. A population which not only had to deal with a bunch of shitty segregationist laws and policies keeping it poor as shit, but also increasingly the stereotype that they were all lazy idiots, you know, just like the Southern whites had to until someone started getting rid of their hookworms. Yeah, that’s where that fun little stereotype came from too. By 1985, hookworms were all but gone from the South. Today, it’s one of the fastest growing economic areas in the country.