Furia infernalis was described by Linnaeus as "Corpus filiforme, continuum, aequale, utrinque ciliatum: aculeis reflexis corpori appressis" ('body thread-like, continuous, uniform, ciliated on both sides with reflexed spinules appressed to the body'). It was found in marshes of southern Sweden and Finland. Linnaeus went on to record that F. infernalis was, "Pessima omnium, ex aethere decidua in corpora animalium, ea momento citius penetrat, intra horae quadrantem dolore atrocissimo occidit": the 'worst of all, falling from the sky onto the bodies of animals, into which it rapidly penetrates within a moment, striking [the victim] down with the most atrocious pain within quarter of an hour'. Linnaeus had good reason to highlight this animal's unpleasantness: he had been attacked by one himself when collecting botanical specimens in 1728, and barely escaped the resulting ailment with his life. A more detailed description of "der Höllenwurm" was compiled by Jördens (1802): it was a very slender worm, about the length of a nail, of a pale yellow or fleshy colour (other authors described it as greyish), with one end black. It climbed up standing vegetation, from whence it was carried by the breeze onto the exposed skin of humans and animals into which it rapidly burrowed. For victims, the first sign of its presence was usually a sudden pain in the afflicted spot, like the stab of a needle, and a small black spot marking the worm's entry point. A violent itching followed that developed into severe and extensive inflammation, often accompanied by fever; in the majority of cases, the affliction was so violent that the victim was dead within a matter of days if immediate action was not taken. If applied quickly enough, the worm could sometimes be drawn out with a poultice of fresh cheese curds. Otherwise, treatment required the careful dissection of the worms from between the muscle tissue into which they had entered, a process that (considering the surgical facilities available at the time) must have nearly as hazardous as the original infection.
As can be imagined, the attacks of this animal were greatly feared. In 1823–1824, an epidemic of Furia attacks spread through herds of livestock in Swedish and Finnish Lapland; thousands of head of reindeer perished, as well as countless cattle and sheep. Scavengers such as wolves feeding on the carcasses themselves sickened and died. One account from the time involves a young woman who was shearing wool from a recently deceased sheep (on a waste not, want not principle, I suppose) when she felt the tell-tale sting on a knuckle. Her life was saved by her master who was working nearby, when he quickly chopped off the affected finger with an axe. So great was the devastation that Norway, which had hitherto been free of the worm, passed an edict banning the import of animal furs from affected areas (Brooke 1827).
There were some, however, who greeted the description of Furia infernalis with skepticism. The idea of a tiny worm that somehow flew through the air and caused almost instantaneous mortality seemed fantastic. Even more problematic was the dearth of specimens. Many had seen the wounds caused by the worm and observed its effects; very few had seen the worm itself. Linnaeus himself had only seen a single, very poorly preserved specimen submitted to him by a church pastor. Most of the details about the worm's supposed appearance came from a single source, an article written by Solander, a student of Linnaeus'. The Academy of Sciences at Stockholm, naturally keen to discover all they could about such a scourge afflicting their country, offered generous rewards to anyone who could procure them a genuine specimen; no such specimen was forthcoming. Eventually, a consensus was reached: the worm Furia infernalis was an entirely fabulous animal, with no place in the annals of physical zoology. By 1827, notwithstanding the epidemic of only a few years previously, Brooke was able to comment that one could quite easily accept that something had affected the supposed victims of Furia without presuming that that something had to be the Furia itself. Even Linnaeus eventually came to accept that his inclusion of Furia in the Systema Naturae had been an error.
That Furia infernalis never existed outside the realms of fantasy remains the accepted wisdom to this day. But in that case, what did afflict Linnaeus and other unfortunates wandering the marshes of Sweden in the early 1700s? One thing that struck me was how much I was reminded of the more recent phenomenon here in Australia of 'white-tailed spider bites'. In recent decades, many people (including many medical professionals) have attributed serious ulcerative skin lesions, sometimes so serious that treatments such as skin grafts are required, to the bite of white-tailed spiders Lampona spp., common ground-running spiders often encountered near human dwellings. The actual evidence linking white-tailed spiders to such injuries is minimal; indeed, a clinical survey of 130 confirmed white-tail bites by Isbister & Gray (2003) found not a single incidence of one leading to ulceration. In both the 'Furia attacks' and the 'white-tailed spider bites', it seems likely that the primary culprit is bacterial infections resulting from opportunistic pathogens such as Streptococcus and Staphylococcus species. The initial wound may indeed have been caused by something like an animal bite or sting, or for that matter a splinter or pin-prick. Germ theory would not become widely accepted until the mid- to late 1800s; when Linnaeus compiled the Systema Naturae, flying worms probably seemed as good an explanation as any. The first 'attack' recorded by Furia victims may have simply been the first moment they noticed the infection's symptoms. And the 'worms' dissected out of advanced victims? Personally, I'm inclined to suspect that they may have been small pieces of tissue from the unfortunate sufferers themselves.
The exact causes of the 1823 epidemic are probably lost to history. Brooke (1827) stated that faculty at the Stockholm academy "had been led to consider the disorder by which [the reindeer] were attacked as a particular variety of hydrophobia". He also mentioned another possibility: reindeer were known to be vulnerable to inflammation of the brain, and dissections of the brains of deer killed by this condition sometimes revealed the presence of "a small vesicular worm". We can now recognise these vesicles as the cysts of hydatid tapeworms, which can hatch to cause tapeworm infections in any predator that eats the flesh of their host. So perhaps the 1823 epidemic was caused by a worm after all—just not the worm that was blamed.
Brooke, A. de C. 1827. A Winter in Lapland and Sweden, with various observations relating to Finmark and its inhabitants; made during a residence at Hammerfest, near the North Cape. John Murray: London.
Isbister, G. K., & M. R. Gray. 2003. White-tail spider bite: a prospective study of 130 definite bites by Lampona species. Medical Journal of Australia 179: 199–202.
Jördens, J. H. 1802. Entomologie und Helminthologie des Menschlichen Körpers, oder Beschreibung und Abbildung der Bewohner und Feinde desselben unter den Insekten und Würmern vol. 2. Gottfried Adolph Grau: Hof.
Linnaeus, C. 1758. Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis 10th ed., revised, vol 1. Laurentius Salvius: Copehagen.