The strange tale of Furia Infernalis

I have only read a little of John Wright’s “The Naming of the Shrew” but already this is the third extract I have found blog-post worthy. I had never heard of Furia infernalis before. I think it deserves to be better known, this is definitely a scientific story worth persisting with – it has an almost fable-like quality:

Few animal names are more evocative than Furia infernalis. One imagines a flying dragon, or perhaps a sabre-toothed tiger, only bigger. On one of his early expeditions, Linnaeus was bitten on the arm by an unidentified creature. The bite was painful, but he thought little more about it until his arm swelled up. He became seriously ill for some time until a surgeon called Dr Schnell incised the arm from armpit to elbow and he recovered. A few years later, Linnaeus settled on a tiny ‘worm’ that had been described by his pupil Daniel Solander as the cause of all his suffering, and proceeded to seek redress against his tormentor. He gave it the rather splendid name Furia infernalis (the fury of Hell – the Furies were mythical creatures of vengeance), describing it as threadlike with ciliate, appressed spines on both sides of its body. Worst of all, he wrote, it fell from the air, penetrated the bodies of animals and caused excruciating pain.

The creature, evidently thrilled with its new name and no doubt emboldened by all the publicity, proceeded to make a thorough nuisance of itself for the best part of a hundred years. A celebrated traveller from England, one Dr Clarke, reported that he, too, temporarily lost the use of his arm due to the attentions of a Furia infernalis, with only the Lapp remedy of a curd poultice saving the day. Cattle also suffered, and in 1823 a five-thousand-strong herd of Lapland reindeer was slaughtered by pestilential hordes of Furia. A young girl, having been stung on the finger by a Furia, survived only because of the quick thinking of her master, who cut off the afflicted finger on the spot.

A ban on fur imports was introduced by Finland to prevent the spread of this calamitous worm, with some success because only Russian and Swedish Lapland were affected. Subsequent to Linnaeus’s establishment of Furia, other naturalists produced dissertations on the creature, establishing its modus operandi (it crawls to the top of a reed and allows the wind to blow it onto the skin of mammals), several more cases of human infection were recorded and a better description than that supplied by Linnaeus – ‘it is the thickness of a human hair, grey with black extremities’ – was made.

Even at the time of its first publication, however, not everyone accepted the existence of the animal. They were supported in their cynicism, it must be said, by a total lack of any specimens. The Academy of Sciences in Stockholm offered a reward for one, but none was forthcoming, and a Mr Retzius of Stockholm undertook an extensive search for the elusive creature without success.

Furia infernalis does not exist and has never existed, but, owing to the rules of zoological nomenclature (see here), its name will live on for all time. Linnaeus (who, to his credit, came to doubt the existence of the species later in life) named it in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, the edition that is accepted as the starting point for the naming of animals. F. infernalis is counted as a valid name and cannot be used for anything else, but it is not an accepted name, having never had a species to which it could belong. Linnaeus was, no doubt, bitten by a horsefly

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