Looking at Lyme

Once my eyes focused on these long snake-like organisms, I recognized what I had seen a million times before: spirochetes.

–Willy Burgdorfer, 2001

Before I submit the SSRC DPDF on Thursday, I need to do enough background research to figure out how/why Lyme Disease visuals are important to study. Ultimately, I need to figure out what the history of these images are and how and why they have been so widely circulated in order to frame my application. However, this is turning out to be more difficult than I’ve anticipated. I’ve been playing around on the internet (i.e. researching) for last hour and a half, and here’s where my web travels have taken me:

  • Google Ngram. It appears that the phrase, “Lyme Disease,” was first used in 1962, but I couldn’t figure out how to make Ngram provide a list of publications from oldest to most recent. (Or they just couldn’t list the publications from the 1960s?) The earliest things that came up were from the 1980s.
  • Google Images. A bunch of categories come up for in a Lyme Disease search: rash, dogs, symptoms, bacteria, tick, and awareness. Looking at pictures of ticks on people’s skin (particularly fingertips) was making me nauseous. How my mother earned a master’s degree in entomology is beyond me. I’m not normally grossed out by bugs (re: entomologist mother), but for some reason, the images of ticks were turning my stomach. Interestingly, this reaction is challenging my earlier claim that typical Lyme Disease pictures are rhetorically ineffective. If an image is making me nauseous, it means that it’s doing something. I’m just not sure what yet.
  • Twitter. I love using Twitter to see what people are posting about Lyme (and everything else in the universe), and I was pleased to find a few new popular articles about Lyme via the #lymedisease hashtag. I also investigated the #lymediseasechallenge hashtag and campaign, which elicited many photos (though not as many as you’d think) of people biting into limes and making puckering faces. A lot of the Lyme Disease advocacy/support groups had posted infographics (without visual data, though, so they were really just informational graphics) with a few facts about Lyme and other things that connect to Lyme. It was interesting to see how Lyme is connected to other spirochete-based diseases like syphilis and that advocacy groups compared the numbers of people diagnosed with Lyme Disease to that of HIV/AIDS, colon cancer, breast cancer, and more. My favorite, of course, were the graphics about how one might prevent Lyme Disease: wearing long sleeved shirts when out in grassy areas, checking for ticks, etc. These remind me of the ineffective campaigns about preventing rape via making at-risk groups responsible for preventing rape. Vomit. It is peculiar that Lyme advocates have taken up a similar campaign–could this be considered a kind of topos?
  • Google Scholar. Again, I was trying to pull up the earliest articles (in date order) using the phrase “Lyme Disease” and “Lyme borreliosis,” as well as a few other variations with and without quotation marks, but the publications only seemed to date back to the 1980s. I eventually realized that it would be helpful to figure out who discovered Lyme Disease and to see what this person/team published on it…and if they included any visuals! This led me to the obituary of medical entomologist Willy Burgdorfer in The Lancet (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60011-3/fulltext?rss%3Dyes). With his team from the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, he looked at ticks from Long Island that were suspected to have Rocky Mountain Fever. Apparently, his main contribution is that he figured out that Lyme Disease was cause by spirochetes (bacteria in a spiral shape), which helped scientists and doctors figure out how to test for it, treat it, and, for a time, vaccinate people against it. Note: This visual discovery has circulated through popular culture, and some people like me even have Lyme spirochete toys – http://www.amazon.com/GIANTmicrobes-Disease-Borrelia-Burgdorferi-Microbe/dp/B000NO9HK2. (Thank you, Emi!)

All of this led me to the journal, Science, where Burgdorfer’s team first published about their Lyme Disease discovery. “Lyme Disease” is first mentioned in the journal, which was then called Science News, in Vol. 113, No. 23 (Jun. 10, 1978), p. 375. The 318 word report discusses the discovery of the first-ever “insect-carried arthritis,” which the researchers call “Lyme Arthritis” after its discovery in Lyme, CT. Interestingly, the reports claims that this condition is most common in children, which is still true according to the CDC, and that most affected individuals life in wooded areas in the north east U.S. The report also claims that scientists suspect that it is a tick-borne illness because the accompanying rash is similar to rashes related to tick-borne disease in Europe. No visual accompany the report.

The groundbreaking Burgdorfer article (written by Willy Burgdorfer, Alan G. Barbour, Stanley F. Hayes, Jorge L. Benach, Edgar Grunwaldt and Jeffrey P. Davis) was published in Vol. 216, No. 4552 (Jun. 18, 1982), pp. 1317-1319 in Science New Series. I’ve included screenshots of the images for your viewing pleasure:


VIsual 1: Spirochetes in Tick Vectors


Visual 2: Spirochetes in an electron micrograph. Not sure what that is, so I guess I should look it up.

We’ll see where all of this goes?

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