Jack Barnes and Irukandji Syndrome

By Anupum Pant

Irukandji Syndrome is a condition which is so painful that even when the patient suffering from it is given the maximum dose of morphine, will still be in absolute agony. The victim also can’t be made unconscious because to ensure survival doctors have to monitor the victim while they’re conscious. It can also cause cardiac arrest, but is rarely fatal. This is how Wikipedia puts it:

One unusual symptom associated with the syndrome is a feeling of “impending doom”. Patients have been reported as being so certain they are going to die, they beg their doctors to kill them to get it over with.

Mysteriously, until the year 1964, Australians would go into the sea and occasionally come back in extreme agony, not knowing what caused it. The mystery was then solved by Jack Barnes, a medical doctor and a former military commando. How he did it is more interesting than anything else.

In 1961, Jack Handyside Barnes, nine year-old son of Jack Barnes, developed Irukandji syndrome and was rushed into a local hospital. Thus started the detective work of Jack Barnes. Following is an extract of what he did.

He perused through the logs of ambulances and hospitals and found that 85% of such reports were coming from victims at 2 beaches – Palm and Ellis beaches.  By analysing wind directions and sea currents at different times of the year, he concluded that it was a jelly fish that was causing this. However, finding the jelly fish which caused the Irukandji syndrome was another task. He, by putting to use his detective skills finally was able to zero on a small jellyfish that was the size of a thumbnail (more detail on the detective work here).

The jellyfish later came to be known as Carukia barnesi, named after Jack Barnes himself. The story which tells us why it got his name is fascinating.

As a totally conclusive test that this particular jellyfish’s sting caused Irukandji syndrome, he decided to “perform an experiment that would challenge even John Hunter’s auto-inoculation with venereal disease for sheer bravado.”

So, he stung himself with it. Twelve minutes later, remarkable restlessness, constant movement, stamping about aimlessly winging their arms, twisting and writhing ensued. Then came abdominal and back pain, pain in the anterior chest wall and great difficulty in breathing, vomiting and what not. But he was finally able to conclude that it was this tiny thumbnail sized monster which caused it.

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