In 2000, a 19-year-old girl was treated at a Barcelona hospital. Among a host of other symptoms, her appetite had become insatiable. She was eating as many as 6,000 calories a day and yet losing weight -- rapidly. Her secret? A not-so-little worm called Taenia solium.
Rumors about the reputed weight-loss powers of tapeworms (T. solium, the pork tapeworm, is one of 40 that infect humans) have persisted for a century. Druggists purportedly peddled worms in pill form in the 1910s, jockeys supposedly swallowed them in the 1920s and 1930s, and celebrities and models have been periodically accused of staying slim by acquiring one.
For centuries, tapeworms were believed to spontaneously generate from dead meat or feces. Then, in the 1800s, a German doctor set the record straight. Friedrich Kuchenmeister fed worm-infested pork to death-row prisoners -- and after their executions, collected worms that had grown in their guts. Despite raised eyebrows over Kuchenmeister's methods, the medical community was pleased a cause had been found.
It wasn't until the early 20th century that newspaper ads began hawking mail-order pills containing tapeworm heads and a few body segments, touting the worms as the "natural enemies" of overeating. By then, observers had centuries of evidence that some tapeworms produced no symptoms, some an upset stomach and some a drastic loss of appetite -- seemingly perfect for shedding pounds. This is exactly why jockeys, notorious for all sorts of off-putting weight-loss schemes, allegedly turned to the pills.