The indigenous Irukandji aborigines around Cairns, Queensland had known about an odd syndrome for years. It would appear to materialize out of nowhere, attacking people at random. With it came muscle, joint, and headaches, high blood pressure, sweating, vomiting, anxiety, and, in some cases, a deadly build-up of fluid in the lungs. But perhaps its most chilling symptom was a feeling of doom that weighed down on anyone afflicted. People had been recorded as begging doctors and family to be euthanized, out of fear of their impending demise. And to add to this terror symptoms sometimes took as long as two weeks to disappear.
This syndrome has been said to be one of the most painful things a person can go through. And nobody knew why it was happening.
In the 1940’s the scientist Hugo Flecker documented the symptoms and hypothesized a link between this syndrome and marine envenomation. Jellyfish. Local swimmers had thought this may have been the case since the early parts of the century. Furthermore, Flecker’s work on the Box Jelly (which bears his name Chironex fleckeri) made him an expert in this field. He was, however, not able to find the culprit.
Enter Dr. Jack Barnes. Barnes had been a military doctor and had worked the Cairns area for many years. Barnes was dedicated to finding the agent behind Irukandji. He deduced that it must be small, transparent, and mobile, or else others would have found it before. So he did the only thing he could. He put on a wetsuit and went diving. Eventually Barnes identified a small creature, a jellyfish, only about a centimeter long.
This is where it goes beyond science and into the realm of bravado. In order to be able to definitively say that this jelly was the culprit Barnes would need to be able to show that it could cause Irukandji. But of course he couldn’t simply wait for a swimmer to be stung. So he did the only thing he could.
He stung himself.
Then, just to be sure, he got his son and a local lifeguard to volunteer to be stung as well.
They all knew full well that, if Barnes was right, they were going to be in for an ordeal. I wonder what thoughts must have gone through their heads as they waited for symptoms to show. The ethics and sanity of Barnes’ experiment have been debated ever since, but they results were crystal clear. Vomiting, spasms, muscle pain.
Jack Barnes had his jelly. The Irukandji Jellyfish, Carukia barnesi, was the cause. Less than a centimeter long. Nearly invisible. And responsible for one of the most painful envenomations in nature. Today, Irukandji safety and treatment is practiced and learned by swimmers throughout Australia. Furthermore, more species have been found in places as far away as England and Florida, although stings are far less common. But for sheer audacity, bordering on criminal insanity, Jack Barnes has earned himself a place in the annals of natural history.
Science is hardcore.