For more than three centuries, a plague of unshakable lethargy blanketed the American South.The rest of the story, with a video, is at PBS.
It began with “ground itch,” a prickly tingling in the tender webs between the toes, which was soon followed by a dry cough. Weeks later, victims succumbed to an insatiable exhaustion and an impenetrable haziness of the mind that some called stupidity. Adults neglected their fields and children grew pale and listless. Victims developed grossly distended bellies and “angel wings”—emaciated shoulder blades accentuated by hunching. All gazed out dully from sunken sockets with a telltale “fish-eye” stare.
The culprit behind “the germ of laziness,” as the South’s affliction was sometimes called, was Necator americanus—the American murderer. Better known today as the hookworm, millions of those bloodsucking parasites lived, fed, multiplied, and died within the guts of up to 40% of populations stretching from southeastern Texas to West Virginia. Hookworms stymied development throughout the region and bred stereotypes about lazy, moronic Southerners...
“You had an entire class of Southern society—including whites, blacks, and Native Americans—that was looked upon as shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings who can’t do a day’s work,” my mom explained to me. “Hookworms tainted the nation’s picture of what a Southerner looked and acted like.”