The Parasite And The President
On September 8, 2016, a Thursday, the Journal of Parasitology issued a press release announcing the publication of an article describing a new genus and species of parasite named in honor of the President of the United States, Barack Obama.
I discovered the worm, a digenetic trematode, while on sabbatical at the Universiti Putra Malaysia in 2008. It inhabits the blood vessels of the lungs of two species of turtle endemic to Southeast Asia: Cuora amboinensis (the Asian box turtle) and Siebenrockiella crassicollis (the Black Marsh turtle). As the discoverer of this new organism, I had the honor of the christening, bestowing the name for the new creature according to the rules established by Carl von Linné, or Linnaeus.
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The name given to this new addition to Earth’s bestiary? Baracktrema obamai.
Why the lag of eight years between the discovery of the new worm and its formal description?
I fully appreciated the importance of my find almost as soon as I saw it. Nothing I had seen in the past quarter-century was remotely similar. It was a new genus and species. When my stay in Malaysia concluded, I returned to Saint Mary’s and began staining specimens and mounting them on slides for microscopic examination. My initial analysis of the “lungworm” confirmed what I had suspected from the beginning. It belonged in the family Spirorchidae (these are the turtle blood flukes, or TBFs, and will loom large as this story unfolds); however, it differed from all the other genera described. I began attempting to elucidate the form of the various organs and organ systems and measuring them for formal publication. I was excited! The basic morphology of trematodes is well known, and I was eminently familiar with the variations present in TBFs.
The worm’s anterior end was straightforward: an oral sucker surrounded the mouth; a short esophagus led to a single cecum or intestine that ran almost the entire length of the body before terminating near the posterior end of the worm. Typically, trematodes have two blind cecae, but a single cecum evolved independently on numerous occasions across the families of flukes. The vitellarium, an organ that produces nutrients for the developing egg, surrounded the cecum. The testis was elongate, and the ovary compact. All of these structures were clearly visible in my specimens. Near the posterior end of the animal, a cirrus sac was present. The cirrus sac houses an eversible cirrus (analogous to the penis but turns inside out during copulation—ouch!).
Most trematodes are hermaphrodites possessing both male and female reproductive organs. The genital pore, the site for both copulation and egg release, was located near the worm’s posterior tip. The big problem was between the ovary and the genital pore. The area housed a complex array of ducts, tubes, and sacs I could not decipher. Over the next six years, I examined these worms between my teaching duties, supervising undergraduate research, and working on other research projects. I was never satisfied.
I fully understood how all the tubes and sacs connected and their role in this fascinating creature’s reproductive life. I was stumped for one of the few times in my professional career, I could not work out a trematode’s anatomy, and I wouldn’t publish something I was only guessing at. I planned to retire at the end of the 2014–15 academic year and didn’t imagine these specimens would yield their secrets to me.
On the other hand, not seeing this through to completion was not an option. It just wasn’t going to be me who carried it across the finish line. I had to find somebody smarter, with better equipment, and the knowledge to complete the investigation.
The choice was easy. Stephen A. ‘Ash’ Bullard, Auburn University, is a generation behind me in age and a generation ahead of me in knowledge and technique. Ash is an expert on the Aporocotylidae (fish blood flukes), which bear many similarities to their cousins found in turtles.
He was the perfect choice to crack the problem I was unable to solve. Ash’s response to my inquiry was an enthusiastic and unqualified “Yes!” Then he surprised me by handing the work over to a graduate student interested in turtle parasites. I was skeptical, but Ash assured me the student showed great potential. His name was Jackson Roberts.
With a sigh of relief, I packed all the material in several boxes and shipped them [to Auburn].
I turned to the task of cleaning out my office and laboratory in preparation for retirement.Occasionally, in films and on television, a person is shown retiring from their job after many decades of service. They walk past offices and cubicles saying goodbye to colleagues carrying a single cardboard box with a few pictures, plaques, and maybe a plant peeking over the top edge. I don’t know if this portrayal is accurate, but leaving academic life is orders of magnitude more challenging. During my 45 years as a graduate student and faculty member, I accumulated over 1,000 books, 5,000 reprints (individual copies of articles), files on students, rough drafts of manuscripts, and voluminous correspondence. There were also thousands of microscope slides of worms from research projects, not to mention vials of worms (mostly nematodes) not typically mounted on slides. Deciding their fate would take the bulk of my last sabbatical during the fall of 2014. I had to cross-check information on the slides with my records, and label them for deposit in an accredited museum. I examined files individually to determine what to keep, what to recycle, and what to shred, as many contained potentially sensitive information.
The books were the hardest to let go. I don’t know any academic of my generation who doesn’t love books. Books mark the history of our lives, our development as scientists and scholars. Many people take them home, but our house was small and already overburdened with books. I planned to continue to do research on a limited basis after retirement, so anything related to those projects stayed. What to do with the rest posed a problem. I wanted to put them in the hands of people who would use them. The sorting process was slow because of the memories many of the volumes invoked. I could recall when, where, and why I purchased most of them. I was erasing my past one volume at a time. I kept about 100 and decided which friends, colleagues, and former students might like the rest. I found homes for the vast majority of them, and I trust they will serve their new owners well.
As the semester wore on and I was nearing the end of the big ‘sort,’ I checked with Ash to see how Jackson was doing. Within days, Ash sent a photograph of Jackson holding multiple sheets of 8 × 11-inch paper taped together, forming a 3 × 4-foot canvass with the preliminary drawing of our worm.
I was relieved to see that my interpretation of the byzantine network of tubes and sacs was about 90 per cent correct. Jackson clearly and convincingly sorted out the rest. It finally made sense.
After some fine-tuning, the manuscript was ready to be sent out for review; however, the worm still did not have a proper Linnaean binomial. Although I would not be the first author on the paper — that honor was Jackson’s — I did, as the person who discovered this creature, have “naming rights.”
My choice was to name it for a relative. The name? Baracktrema obamai. Why? Why name a new parasite after President Obama?
My cousin, Doug Toot, and his wife, Lola, are serious amateur genealogists and discov-ered our family connection to the 44th president through a gentleman who resided in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s named George Frederick Toot. He is my fourth great-grandfather and President Obama’s sixth, making us fifth cousins, twice removed.
The primary rule for naming new species is that the binomial must be unique. No other animal can have the same name, the name must be in Latin (or Latinized), and the two names must agree in number and gender.
Since President Obama was part of my ‘extended’ family, I followed a tradition established early in my career. Having a species named after you is an honor. I have two species and a genus named for me. I was touched my colleagues thought my contributions to the field sufficient to warrant public recognition. I voted for Obama twice and felt he did an admirable job as president during his two terms. Naming this unique and beautiful organism would be, in my mind, a tribute to his legacy.
I finally screwed-up my courage and sent Ash my proposal. The initial response from Auburn was lukewarm. Jackson grew up in Tennessee, and many of his relatives were not fans of Obama. Both Ash and Jackson finally indicated their assent, but I sensed a level of discomfort. Ash is a friend. Although I didn’t know Jackson personally, I didn’t want to force either of them to do something they might find problematic, either personally or professionally. I told them if they didn’t want to use the name for any reason, I would change it. I didn’t have an alternative in mind, but I would think of something.
After a brief interlude, they both decided, “What the hell, let’s see what happens.” We sent the manuscript to the Journal of Parasitology for review and possible publication. The reviews were positive and recommended publication. One reviewer suggested we should not name the organism after a prominent politician without permission.
I expected Baracktrema obamai might raise some eyebrows. Hell, I was hoping it would. Ours wasn’t the first organism named in Obama’s honor. It wasn’t even the first parasite. None of them caused a kerfuffle as far as I knew; why would one more? I did not attempt to contact the White House. Better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.
In April, [my wife] Kathy and I traveled to Ft. Mill, South Carolina, for the meeting of the Southeastern Society of Parasitologists. My primary reason for attending was to meet Jackson and the other members of Ash’s lab. Jackson was a delight. A large, bear-like young man several inches taller and more than a few pounds heavier than I. We immediately bonded and fell into conversation about our backgrounds in and outside the discipline. Jackson attended college in Tennessee and played baseball in high school and college. We had a great time over the two and a half day meeting, which made the 1600-mile round trip more than worthwhile.
The April and June issues of the Journal of Parasitology passed with no sign of our paper. It had to be August. In the middle of the month, I received an e-mail from Peter Burns, the liaison between Allen Press and the Journal of Parasitology. The journal would issue a press release heralding the publication of Baracktrema obamai.
A few days later, I received a second e-mail from Peter with a series of questions regarding my motivation for naming a parasite after the president. I was puzzled because the formal description of a new organism contains a short section entitled “Etymology,” which explains the derivation of the chosen name. We clearly indicated my familial connection to the president and were naming it in his honor. There could be no doubt we had no intention of disparaging Mr. Obama. I didn’t realize my answers (and those of my co-authors) would be crafted into a press release.
Most of the questions centered on the negative view many people had of parasites, and was this really an honor? I thought this a strange question coming from a journal devoted to the study of these organisms. I suspect they wanted to make sure I was on record stating my motives were pure. They probed the family relationship and any significance to the parasite’s Malaysian origin (the answer was No).
There was one question I thought was a bit strange: Does something about the new species, especially its physical characteristics, remind you of Obama?
I thought about this for a moment and wrote: “I should note this seems the equivalent of when Barbara Walters asked her interviewees what kind of animal or tree they would be — a little silly.” With that preamble, I concluded, “The worm is long, thin, and cool as hell!”
[My wife] and I planned a trip to New York City for …a working vacation. We both love Broadway, and I planned on doing some research in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History for a paper on a dispute between several prominent parasitologists at the beginning of the 20th century. Kathy would spend time with a high school friend, Karen Pontius, who lives in the city, and we looked forward to attending plays in the evening. I learned the press release would appear while we were in NYC. Not an ideal time.
I don’t have a cell phone. I have nothing against technology, and I am not a Luddite. I don’t need one. I spend most of my days either in my office at Saint Mary’s or at home. There are landlines in both places. When I travel, Kathy is with me, and she has a phone for directions and emergencies. Only this time, she wouldn’t be. I would be at the museum, and Kathy would be touring The Big Apple with Karen. I gave the journal my wife’s number as my contact…An inelegant solution to the problem, but it was the best I could do.
September 9 was a beautiful day, warm and a bit breezy befitting late summer. The stroll from our rental on the upper eastside through Central Park to 79th and Central Park West was a glorious way to begin an eventful 48 hours. I arrived at the museum when they opened, stowed my backpack in a locker as required, and introduced myself to the librarian who would assist me during my visit. I gave her the information I needed for my project, and she headed for the stacks. I arranged my supplies: a pen, mechanical pencil, paper, and a tablet computer (to photograph documents if necessary). I wanted to examine the letters and manuscripts of Horace Wesley Stunkard, a former research associate of the museum and faculty member at New York University whom I met at my first parasitology meeting over four decades earlier. I was investigating a controversy regarding the early history of the family Spirorchidae: the same family now containing the new genus and species, Baracktrema obamai.
I began plowing through the boxes of material the librarian delivered from the stacks. Because of the limited amount of time available, I made judgments of what to examine in detail rather quickly.
In mid-afternoon, my world turned upside down. The librarian told me my wife called and needed to speak to me immediately. Fortunately, I was the only person working in the archives, and the staff granted access to their phone.
Kathy wasn’t in full panic mode but close. She received calls from reporters who wanted to talk about the article. She had names and numbers for the Associated Press and Philadelphia Inquirer. I jotted them down.
Both focused on the fact that I named a parasite for the current (and generally popular) president; parasites are regarded as among the lowest forms of life (obviously, I did not concur).
Was this really considered an honor? I reaffirmed my admiration for President Obama and highlighted our familial connection. I shared that I named a parasite (from the eye of a turtle) for my father-in-law and conveyed my life-long dedication to the field and my love of the organisms. I felt I acquitted myself reasonably well. Kathy, Karen, and I met for dinner. We ordered, and I provided a recap of the interviews. We had purchased tickets to see The Marvelous Wonderettes playing at the Kirk Theater on 42nd Street, and the conversation turned to other topics as we ate.
During dinner, I silently weighed my options. Should I attend the play or let Kathy and Karen go while I returned to our rental to see if there were any more inquiries I needed to address? My laptop was there, and I knew I had internet access.We came to New York to see plays. When dinner concluded, we headed to the subway and arrived at the theater about 45 minutes before curtain…
I began to wonder if I had done something incredibly stupid. I never sought the limelight. I spent most of my days alone in my office and laboratory. I hoped for some modest recognition, but a few friends suggested Baracktrema was going “viral.”
I wasn’t prepared for what was coming. Saturday was beautiful. We planned a trip to Brooklyn to visit the son and daughter-in-law of dear friends from South Bend, Bob and Ann Cope…I had a second objective in mind. The carousel from my hometown amusement park, the now-defunct Idora Park, had been purchased, moved to Brooklyn, and restored to its original condition.
I spoke with the reporter from The Chronicle. Her approach to the subject was a bit different. She was interested in reviewing all the flora and fauna named in honor of President Obama. I also received a rather frantic note from Gwen O’Brien, the Media Relations Director at Saint Mary’s. She caught wind of what was happening and wanted to coordinate my interactions with the press.
[My] story had gone viral and appeared in media outlets around the globe. Most made light of the “squirmy honor” but clearly indicated I was sincere in my tribute to President Obama.
Conservative papers and bloggers were not as kind, noting the gesture was fitting as in their minds, Obama was a parasite — or worse. In this age of social media, “trolling” is a part of daily life for many people. However, my experience was almost nil as I had no online presence: no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I received two e-mail messages from liberals con-demning my action.
During our meeting, Gwen shared that KABC radio in Los Angeles wanted to do a live interview the following morning and asked if I was interested. I said, “Yes.” I was curious that Gwen hadn’t mentioned the South Bend Tribune, our local paper, or any local television stations. She indicated more interest in national and international coverage. I argued we should do everything possible to get Saint Mary’s name in front of the local community as we suffer from living in the shadow of the Golden Dome, i.e., the University of Notre Dame.
Gwen agreed to contact local reporters. She was good to her word, and the local CBS affiliate, WSBT, would send a reporter later in the day, [and that was] Kaitlin Connin [who] fit the mold of a modern newscaster: young, attractive, and very bright.
Kaitlin arrived with a cameraman and suggested we chat a bit before starting. I gave her a quick tour of the newly renovated Science Hall and shared some personal history and my career in biology. She and her assistant set up in one of the new laboratories, positioned me on a stool, and checked the lighting and sound levels. The interview was professional and straightforward.
As Kaitlin was packing to leave, she indicated the story would air at 6:00 p.m. I missed the live broadcast due to a prior commitment. When Kathy and I returned home, I fired up the computer and searched for the clip online. I couldn’t find it, but I did locate the transcript. I was pleased with the flow until I got to the section on our shared ancestor, the connection that prompted me to name the new worm after President Obama.
Kaitlin’s article quoted me saying our common ances-or’s name was George Frederick Smith, not George Frederick Toot. I nearly fell out of my chair!
How could she have made such a horrific mistake? Or had I, in the stress of the moment, misidentified my fourth great-grandfather?
I searched again for the video and couldn’t believe my ears when my video doppelganger uttered the name “George Frederick Smith.” I sent Katlin an e-mail noting my faux pax.
Her reply? “Well, it isn’t the worst thing that ever happened in broadcast journalism. I’ll correct it in the print edition.” A charming young woman.The following morning, I waited in my office for the radio interview with KABC. At some point, I realized I didn’t know the ideological lean-ings of KABC or who might conduct the interview. Some of the press accounts by right-wing media were less than kind, and I thought, “Oh crap, this could be really, really bad.” Again, thanks to the internet, I located KABC online and was relieved to hear the mix of news, sports, and humorous banter associated with mainstream drive-time radio. A producer called and gave me some tips about what to expect. I heard the introduction and was live in Los Angeles. The conversation went smoothly; the on-air personalities had some fun at my expense and reined me in when I drifted into professor-speak. Six and a half minutes later, it was over. I said nothing untoward and, unexpectedly, enjoyed the attention.
Press reports were snowballing; however, I was distressed by the derogatory nature of many of them. Even the articles reporting our naming as an honor to the president used modifiers like “dubious” or “squirmy” to indicate the public’s negative view of parasites.
I decided to write a short piece with the working title of In Defense of Parasites. The words came easily, and within an hour, I had a 600-word essay.
The question was, what next? This was probably my only shot at having my voice in the national press, so I went with “Go big, or go home.” It had to be either the New York Times or the Washington Post.
The Times had done little with the story, while the Post published a substantial article with a picture of Obama.
I went with the Post. I had zero expectation I would get a reply, let alone an op-ed in the paper of Bradlee, Woodward, and Bernstein. I searched the paper’s website for the appropriate editor and sent an e-mail explaining who I was, and asked if they would be interested in a short piece from my perspective.
I was stunned when I heard back from Mike Larabee expressing interest in reading my “piece” but no guarantee to print it.
Publication of a daily newspaper moves at warp speed compared to its academic counterparts. I was used to months, or more, from submission to print because the information in a scientific paper has relevance for years or decades. The life span of many news articles is the blink of an eye by comparison.
The next day I received word the Post accepted my essay. After a thorough edit, the final draft entitled “I named a parasite after Barack Obama. It was meant as a compliment” (not In Defense of Parasites as I had hoped) appeared on Friday, September 15, less than three days from submission to print!
Friends told me not to read the comments. I read all 100-plus: the good, the bad, and the vicious. People who disliked Obama continued their ignorant screeds. People who thought I was disrespectful to the president hammered me, but a few kind souls rose to my defense, demonstrating an understanding of what I did and an appreciation for the “beauty of life in all its forms.”
Their thoughtfulness lifted my spirits.The week between the news release to the Washington Post article was a wild ride. Much to my relief, things settled down.
I learned a valuable lesson; be careful what you wish for.
I was surprised [that] I hadn’t heard from the South Bend Tribune. Then one of those coincidences of thought and action occurred. The phone rang. Margaret Fosmoe, the education writer for Tribune, was on the line requesting an interview. We arranged to meet at my office early the following week.
We spoke for about 45 minutes, and I was photographed holding a drawing of Baracktrema. The following Saturday, the article appeared on the front page, below the fold. It was similar to others published over the previous weeks; however, Margaret posed an interesting question none of the other reporters thought to ask. After the standard “Have you heard from the White House?” (I had not), she asked, “What do you think Obama’s response was when he heard the news?” I thought for a second and replied, “If he did,” the professor said with a smile, “my guess is he shook his head in amusement and moved on to more important things.”
I did not receive a call from the president or the White House. I suppose I fantasized it might happen, and I would have been delighted if Obama had reached out. I sent a copy of the Journal of Parasitology containing our article to the White House for inclusion in Obama’s Presidential Library—I received the standard postcard thanking me for my gift; a card mailed to thousands of people every year who send stuff to the president and first lady: plain, perfunctory, and impersonal. My 15 minutes of fame were over.
Gwen O’Brien shared the results from a service the Saint Mary’s employed to follow reports of the college in various media—200-plus mentions, more than any other single event in St. Mary’s history. The paper brought nearly 10,000 unique visitors to the Journal of Parasitology’s website, more than the next 19 articles combined. I even got a nod from our campus security officers when I stopped by their office to renew my parking tag.
And the response from the higher-ups at Saint Mary’s? Nothing! Not even an “Atta boy” from the Dean, Provost, or President. Their indifference was baffling, disappointing, and a bit hurtful.
Do I regret my decision to “raise some eyebrows”? No. Nobody was hurt. I had a little fun and brought some attention to parasitology and the organisms to which I devoted the better part of my life.
If Obama was facing a re-election campaign, I wouldn’t have done it. I do have a great deal of respect for the man as president, husband, and father. I would not have done anything to hurt his chances for a second term.
The furor died down quickly, and Baracktrema obamai is still, I suspect, cycling through snails and turtles in Southeast Asia. However, the illegal turtle trade and habitat degradation may threaten the extinction of both hosts and parasite.
Neither of the Obamas will live forever, but their name will as long as we are here, and there are folks like me who are fascinated by these genuinely remarkable and under-appreciated organisms. (First of a two-part stories about The President and The Parasite)
This article was republished here with permission from the Boardman News.