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.
Of course, whether the pills contained the promised worms remains unknown. And some tapeworm species can bring on not just weight loss, but also malnutrition, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anemia and the formation of fluid-filled cysts that can damage organs, block circulation and cause seizures.
The worms (the longest of which can grow to 35 feet) can also put pounds on. When opera singer Maria Callas dropped 66 pounds in two years, her friends reported that her secret, too, was a tapeworm -- though her reputed worm is easily the most disputed in history. Some said she consumed tapeworm eggs intentionally; others pointed to her fondness for steak tartare as a likely source of infection.
Still others say that if a tapeworm was linked to Callas' weight loss, it was losing the tapeworm that helped her shed pounds. Although some tapeworms diminish the urge to eat, or compete with their human hosts for calories, others cause fluid buildup in the abdomen, creating a potbelly -- not the desired effect.
Add anal itching and hives to the list of potential symptoms, and it's no wonder the tapeworm fad died out.
But gut worms may be making a slightly different comeback. Recent studies suggest that a few innocuous roundworms (distant cousins of the tapeworm) in the gut can clear up inflammatory bowel disease. And a Japanese researcher claims that the harmless worms he ingests keep him slim and fight his allergies. He's confident enough in the therapy that he's given his wife a dose of worms too.
No word on her weight just yet.