What do Genghis Khan, the US Civil War and the UK health service have in common?

The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, worms.

Yes, you read that right, worms.

You see, flies, like most insects, go through a complete metamorphosis from egg to adult, going through the larval and pupal stages.

In many of the fly species, during the larval stage they are maggot-shaped and are scientifically known as maggots.

Devoid of limbs, their main purpose is to consume whatever they can, growing up to 100 times their size when they hatched.

Now, the specific worms I’m talking about are hatchlings of calliphorid species (Calliphoridae), blowflies or flesh blowflies, blue flies or green flies.

Most of us have encountered them in less than optimal conditions, such as on rotting meat or hovering over pet droppings.

But some of these species are the complete opposite of harmful: in fact, they are medical wonders.

War wounds
The idea of having maggots crawling across your wounds may not sound great, but the medical use of maggots, known as debridement therapy, has been around for a long time.

Legend has it that when Genghis Khan, the founder of the largest contiguous empire in history, wandered across Asia he brought a cart full of worms to help his soldiers.

His wounds would be filled with the worms that feasted on his flesh. Not in living tissue, but in the dead and decaying tissue that surrounded them.

Fascinatingly, it is believed that Kan and his armies knew that there are maggots there that not only feed on his necrotic flesh, but also keep his wounds clean after chewing on the infected tissue.

And the Mongols were not the only ones.

There is evidence of the ancient Ngiyampa aboriginal tribe of New South Wales in Australia, the hill people of northern Myanmar and the Maya of Central America also used them.

The removal of oozing flesh was a global phenomenon.

Interestingly, though, it didn’t really catch on in mainstream medicine for a long time.

And indeed, it took another war epic to get our attention.

A surgeon named John Forney Zacharias, who worked for a time in a hospital in DanVille during the US Civil War, began to pay attention to this phenomenon.

He was the first in modern times to intentionally use maggots to remove decayed tissue, with results good enough to produce, as he put it, “eminent satisfaction.”

The worms also cleaned the wounds of their bacteria, he noted.

However, that work soon came to a halt thanks to people like Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur who rightly advocated good hygiene, which seemed at odds with the use of maggots.

With Alexander Fleming and the advent of penicillin the practice was apparently consigned to history for who wants to have maggots squirming in wounds when a simple pill can do the trick?

But in the 1980s the magical antibiotics were losing their own war with an elite new army called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA.

The hospital super bacteria required a new weapon and boom! the worms returned to the wounds.

And it is that, they are not only ideal because they eliminate the affected tissue by dissolving the meat to have a worthy feast, but they consume unpleasant bacteria such as MRSA, and destroy them in their bowels.

They are fast, efficient and very effective.

Therefore, in places like the United Kingdom they are available to everyone through the health service or NHS.

And for those who are repulsed by the thought of having maggots crawling through their wounds, they now come packaged in what look like little tea bags… What could be more comforting than that?

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