Calamity Animal

Venus Combing Cupid's Hair (c. 1630)

Giovanni da San Giovanni (1592–1636)
Galleria Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Upon first glance, this is merely the picture of a little boy being groomed by an affectionate mother. But the immature wings on the little boy's shoulders prompt us to see him correctly as Cupid (from Latin Cupido—"desire"), which implies that the woman is actually Venus, the Roman goddess of love, beauty, desire and seduction, among other felicitous ends, and his father is the god of war, Mars. Armed with a small bow, and many arrows—in the quiver at their feet—tipped with uncontrollable desire, Cupid's victims were all innocent. In that context, the subject "Venus Combing Cupid's Hair" is a rather lame excuse for a serious portrait. If we contemplate it from the perspective of a 17th-century viewer, the factual content of it—woman, boy, comb—is pointless, incoherent, and dull. However, then as now the true irony of the scene is hilarious.

In those days every man, woman and child in the known world was intimately acquainted with the flea. No one had any reason to fear it, since more than three hundred years would pass before anyone branded the flea as a vector, a carrier of the deadly bacteria Yersinia pestis, and thus an enabler of natural disasters such as the bubonic ("Black Death"), pneumonic and septicemic pandemics.1

In the practical terms of the times, the flea—or else a body louse—could be an importunate distraction that would ruin the pleasure of young Cupid's unerring marksmanship.

Sagacious Insect?

In his paraphrase of the captain's journals as of 26 December 1805 concerning the flea problem, Nicholas Biddle sympathetically summarized their effect on the natives along the lower Columbia. "These animals . . . are so numerous that they are almost a calamity to the Indians of this country."2 Later, however, he referred to the nettlesome insect in a more kindly manner—as a "sagacious" animal.

Noah Webster defined the noun sagacity in 1806 as "quick of scent or thought," which reflects the fact that it was then most commonly used in reference to certain domestic animals, such as Lewis's Newfoundland dog, when their natural intelligence seemed to resonate with, or perhaps even anticipate, that of humans. Even Indians were duly impressed by Lewis's dog, Seaman. Of course, the diminutive size and the now uncivil reputation of the flea makes that conclusion absurd. Maybe Biddle had in mind the popularity of the "flea circus" in England (but not in the Colonies!) beginning in the 16th century,3 so we may as well overlook the subject.

However, although fleas obviously do not have eyes, ears, noses, or brains like dogs or humans, nor do they have skeletal bones to support their muscles and organs, they most certainly can "see," "hear," "smell," and "feel." So, fleas can indeed be "sagacious animals," although only in a sense proportional to their size.

That is to say, the ranges of their options are extremely narrow. For example, a flea has a sensory structure on the back of the last abdominal segment called a sensillum, through which it can sense the approach of enemies or hosts from changes in air currents and vibrations that are transmitted down hair shafts.4 Some miss the mark, but others land firmly on the moving hosts at ankle height or a little above, and swiftly scramble upward away from the glaring sunlight, expecting to plunge into the deep shadows of fur, or feathers, or else—in the case of the Corps of Discovery—the mens' buckskin clothing.


In a flea's instant, the females will deftly inject their siphons into the new host's flesh and begin at once to drink. Within 48 hours, each well-nourished mother-to-be will lay a clutch of between 3 and 8 sticky white eggs somewhere in her host's nest, which, unless destroyed by the hands of the host, within another few hours will hatch into larvae (pronounced either LAHR-vee or LAHRV-eye). Each of the larvae will grow through six instars (Latin for "forms" or "figures," i.e. stages or molts;) before leaving their cocoons to change into imagoes (im-AH-goz), each of which will endure an identical, eons-old, 30-to-45-day cycle of its own.

It is impossible to identify the flea species that held the attention of the Corps of Discovery for most of the six months they spent on the banks of the Lower Columbia River and adjacent seacoasts. And even if the captains had been able to call them by any other name, it would hardly have affected the expedition's history. The captains—and no doubt all the rest of the party, including Sacagawea and Seaman—recognized them immediately and took appropriate steps to deal with them. There was no need for anyone to get down on hands and knees with a "burning glass"—magnifying glasses from the Corps' presents for Indians—and figure out what to call those pests. And no one needed to be assured that these little animals would abandon the expeditions' bodies as soon as they arose in the morning, and that the places to begin exterminating them were the dark folds and crevices of their bunks. The captains simply issued an order concerning the importance of keeping their own huts, beds and selves clean, and compelling each man to catch and kill his own fleas.

  • 1. The generic name Yersinia honors the bacterium's Swiss discoverer, Alexandre-Émile-John Yersin (1753–1943), and of the links between its source hosts, usually rodents, and its transmittal by its well-matched vector, the flea. The specific epithet, pestis is Latin for "pestilence."
  • 2. History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, Prepared for the press by Paul Allen, Esquire [Edited by Nicholas Biddle.] 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814), 2:100. Emphasis added.
  • 3. Brendan Lehane, The Compleat Flea, (London, John Murray, 1969), 56–64.
  • 4. Alan Gunn and Sarah Jane Pitt, Parasitology: An Integrated Approach (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 160.