Cindy M. Doran is a clinical pharmacist [Pharm. D.] with post-doctoral fellowship training in research of infectious disease. She left her post of Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin’s School of Pharmacy 14 years ago to raise 5 kids with her husband. In her spare time, she works at a local independent pharmacy; reviews books for the New York Journal of Books; and exhibits her love of infectious diseases, literature and the arts on
Once upon a time there was a national meeting of fungi, overseen by fairies and witches to keep it running smoothly. The fungi were gathered from all over the world to determine who should rule their kingdom. The main criteria for ruler, oddly enough, was how well a fungus could convince the other fungi of their capacity to affect the human species.
Mycetozoa - slime mold - Kunstformen der Natur (1904) plate 93: Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919); from Wikipedia, US public domain.
Mushroom spoke with authority; he believed he should be ruler. All the other attendees squirmed in their circle, especially the slime molds. They didn’t like the fact that they were all recently divided up and kicked out of the Fungi kingdom. They were here out of protest. Needless to say, the gathering was an uncomfortable fairy ring, of sorts. Mushroom had always talked way too much about its pharmaceutical powers. Most fungi couldn’t listen to him anymore.
Tremella of Lincolnshire, a jelly fungus, shook off a few fruit bodies in disgust. “Really now Morel, I should be ruler as many humans believe I am from the stars.” Less cautious rumblings arose from the crowd. A few other fungi of other species nodded either their caps, or conidias, or bud scars, or sporangiums, whatever was up where a head might be [they were diverse and in various states of development]. It was true; none of them were called starshot like Tremella was.
Tremella jelly fungus; Photograph by Lorraine Phelan; 2006; Creative Commons license.
A little gray-green lichen from County Mayo murmurred that graveyard mold held the most power. “Graveyard mold has been used at human funerals to keep the dead from reappearing. I think it should be ruler. Who else here can claim such power over humans?”
Now, this once calm meeting was more like a crowd at a Germany vs. England World Cup soccer match. No one saw the microscopic dermatophyte-self-proclaimed-as-Tinea climb onto the oak stump stage. She spoke into the microphone “Ahem…”
An Irish graveyard; "Circle of Friends” Photograph by Curtis Andrews, email@example.com; Waukesha, WI; used with permission.
She was patient and slowly caught everyone’s attention. She was used to being ignored at first, but she knew that if she persisted, others would eventually listen. After five minutes of ‘Ahems’ the crown silenced and squinted.
“Who’s up there?”
“Ah, it must be another one of them tiny fungi. Perhaps we should listen,” choked Aspergillus.
The meeting referees flew over the gathering and asked for all the fungis’ attention.
Tinea capitis [a disease name she personally took as her own because it was her favorite] stood there, with hyphae out, proud and calm. She read from her notes that no one else but her could see. “I stand before you a humble Trichophyton. I don’t claim to have magical powers, but medical powers I have. I cause many skin infections, but ringworm of the head, Tinea capitis that is,” she blushed, “has had the greatest effect on the social ordering of humans.” Her view was obviously biased and unfounded, but other agents of infectious diseases such as malaria, retroviruses, bacteria, and the-like were not at this meeting.
<i>Trichophyton rubrum</i> from CDC/Wikipedia; Creative Commons license.
Upon hearing ‘social ordering,’ a communal inhalation of forest air brought all movement to an end. The thinned air hung over the birds that had stopped their nesting and were peeking over the rims of their homes.
Everyone was paying attention.
Evoking the power of three, she set forward her claim. “I have the power to affect human social ordering in three ways:” A royal blue slide with tiny gold print showed her points. It wasn’t readable at the far side of the circle. She read them off. “Number one: I can spread fear. This makes humans listen to and agree to practically anything; Number two: I can make beautiful people invisible.”
Gasping and murmuring, becoming a chant, “Look at number two” interrupted her.
Tinea patiently proceeded, “and Number three: Some of the most hideous scalps are upon the most clever boys—the ones mistaken for stupid. Alone and discredited their whole lives, they become heroes.” She continued. “Please let me explain my position by providing some examples of each point. All humans read the newspaper, and I love the power of the press, so I’ll take stories reported in ‘The Daily Tale’ to illustrate my points.”
There was a brief pause for effect. She saw that the crowd was listening and went on, becoming more animated. “In 1956, Italo Calvino highlighted old tales of the danger of the mangy one. In ‘The Ship with Three Decks,’ a young lad [the true godson of the King] set upon a journey to meet the King. Before he set off, he was warned of three individuals, one with the mange! The third man he met on his journey was the mangy one, but he was disguised by a wig. The clueless lad traveled with the wigged one who stole his godson-identity. The lad was forced to be his servant. When they reached the King, the King believed the wigged one to be his godson. Now, the wigged-mangy one, being truly evil, wanted to keep his identity a secret. So, he sent the lad on a dangerous journey to rescue the King’s daughter—hoping that the lad would be killed. At the end, the mangy one was found out, the lad rescued the daughter, and so forth. What is important to glean from this story is that evil ones with mange give ringworm, ME, a bad name. This bad name leads to fear of all mange, whether it’s me or not. That gives me power.”
“Joseph Jacobs had a wonderful report in the ‘Daily Tale’ called ‘Three Heads in A Well’ where a cruel hump-backed step-daughter of the King of Colchester was punished for being cruel to an old man and three heads she found in a well. She was given the mange in the face. Now, I know that this was truly leprosy [an infection that affects the colder parts of the body, not the cap of the head], but the term ‘mange’ associates me by default—increasing the fear associated with all ‘mange.’”
“This fear is so perverse that the term ‘mange’ is clearly an insult in human circles. Well, one reporter, Perrault, was too tame in his telling of ‘Puss in Boots’ to use the term, but Giambattista,” she stretched the vowels as long as she could, “Giambattista Basile got it right when the cat told the youngest miller’s son that he ‘wasn’t worth less than a mangy donkey’—the inheritance of the 2nd oldest son.”
To further her example of point number one, she showed pictures of heads with patches of hair missing, skin all scaly and lumpy. “I cause scalp disease, and am commonly confused with other diseases that may affect the scalp. Allergy, lupus and other autoimmune diseases, psoriasis, seborrhea, even leprosy.” eyes rolled upward, “Other infections are also confused with me. I am truly mostly ringworm [a treatable disorder], but put me in a crowd of people and I affect everyone, whether they have me on their heads or not. Scald head. Scalp disease. The mange. Whatever the cause, the fear leads to this ignorant reaction among humans—division, socially, based on appearance.”
This was news to the fungi as they were incredibly diverse, and used to the idea of being different from each other. Tinea let this sink in for a moment, and continued. “For a long time now, people with scald head have been ignored. Beautiful people and royal people have noticed this, but have used it to their own advantage. I know of two reports from two different countries where young golden hair boys from royalty hid their identity by either placing a cap on their head because it was sore [as Grimm reported in Germany in ‘Iron Hans’] or an ox bladder to make his head look like it was covered with the mange, as Calvino reports from Italy in ‘The Mangy One.’ One boy was taken from his family by the devil, and one taken by a forest wildman. After masquerading as gardeners’ helpers with the mange, they somehow won the hearts of princesses who guessed their true identities. In the end, the golden haired ones married the princesses and reunited with their royal families. They hid for so long, however, because of me!”
She arrived to her third point, puffed out more spores and told of how some poor people have less sanitation and were unable to get rid of their mange. Because of this mange, they became further discredited—almost invisible within society. She knew the humiliation. These people had an inner power, however, that made them better than others—because of her!
She spoke of the Arabian Nights. “On the 778th and 779th nights, Shahrazad told the story of the scald-headed boy who spied on the Fellah’s wife, in ‘The Fellah and His Wicked Wife.’ The wife was sloppy around the boy—taking him for dumb. You see, the wife was having an affair, wanted her husband gone, and tried to poison him. The boy saw what was going on, and dutifully informed the Fellah, who took corrective action. She should never have dismissed the boy. He was a clever lad.”
“Another clever lad was a son of a cobbler. He too had scalp disease. He wished to win the hand of the depressed princess by making her laugh. If he tried and failed, he would be put to death. His family laughed at him ‘Ha, ha, ha…a king with scalp disease.’ When he left home for his mission, he was quoted in the ‘Daily Tale’ as saying ‘Well father, I’m leaving. Here everybody looks down on me because of my scalp disease. Give me three loaves of bread, three gold florins, and a bottle of wine,’ and he went. Along his way, he fed three poor women out of the goodness in his heart. The third woman, after the last of the items were gone, turned into a blond maiden with a star in her hair, and she gave him a fine goose with the instructions: ‘if touched, the goose will say ‘Quack, Quack’ and you should promptly say ‘Stick to my back.’”
Illustration from “The Golden Goose,” variant of Calvino's “Quack, Quack, Stick to my Back,” which has the boy as a scald-headed lad; from Wikipedia; Creative Commons license.
“At an inn he was offered free room and board because the innkeeper’s daughters eyed the goose. In the middle of the night the goose said ‘Quack Quack,’ to which he replied ‘Stick to my back.’ The daughter in nightgown, who was trying to steal the goose, became stuck to it. She yelled for her sister who came in her nightgown, and became stuck in the same manner. Evidently non-plussed, the boy continued his journey, along with the goose and stuck daughters. In a timely fashion, a priest and coppersmith, with pots and pans, became stuck too, just a short way from the castle-of-the-depressed-princess. She was on her balcony, saw the sight, and laughed—as did everyone else in the castle. The boy asked for the daughter’s hand in marriage, but the King didn’t want to give permission because of the boy’s scalp disease. The lad didn’t take ‘No’ for an answer, so the King ordered him bathed. Of course, he became handsome and married the princess. In the ‘Golden Goose,’ Grimm reported the same story, but called him a simpleton. The lad was kind and clever [not a simpleton]. He won the princess, in a slightly different manner. The omission of him being a scald-head was a major journalistic error!”
She reiterated her three points and concluded her speech with a final puff of spores, waving them over the crowd. Shitake and others placed leaves on their head-like structures to protect themselves. “Who here can hold such power?”
The vote was unanimous. Tinea capitis truly had powers of epic human consequence.
To bed now. To bed. Go rest your weary head.
Note: In reality, ringworm is caused by a Trichophyton that causes skin and hair infections. Other dermatophytes can cause these, plus nail infections. A dermatophytic infection of the scalp is called Tinea capitis, a treatable affliction no longer associated with the stigma, in the developed world, that it was at the time of the Arabian Nights, Basile, Grimm, Jacobs, and even Calvino. Tinea’s opinions are her’s alone, not that of Scientific American nor CM Doran.
For more information on Dermatophytic infections.
Calvino; 1956; Italian Folktales; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [Quack, Quack, Stick to My Back; The Mangy One; The Ship with 3 Decks]
Duggan, FM; 2008; Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms and Mildews in Stories, Remedies, and Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. North American Fungi 3: 23-72; doi:10.2509/naf2008.003.0074
Owens [editor]; 1981; The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales; Crown Publishing; [Iron Hans and The Golden Goose]
The Three Heads in the Well; by Joseph Jacobs
Puss In Boots; by Giambattista Basile
The Fellah and His Wicked Wife; from the Arabian Nights
A very heartfelt thank you to Jack Zipes for leading me to “Iron Hans” [Grimm] and the main reference for Fairy Tales: Uther; 2011; The Types of International Folktales; v1-3. FF Communications.