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Chasing the Sun: The woman forgotten by science

Annie MaunderImage copyright RAS/DORRIE GILES
Image caption Annie Maunder: A pioneer of solar astronomy

On the far side of the Moon lies the Maunder crater, named after two British astronomers – Annie and Walter Maunder.

Annie worked alongside her husband at the end of the 19th Century, recording the dark spots that pepper the Sun.

The name Maunder is still known in scientific circles, yet Annie has somehow slipped from history.

“I think the name Maunder is there and we have all rather forgotten that that’s two people,” says Dr Sue Bowler, editor of the Royal Astronomical Society magazine, Astronomy and Geophysics.

“She was acknowledged on papers, she published in her own name as well as with her husband, she wrote books, she was clearly doing a lot of work but she also clearly kept to the conventions of the day, I think.”

The ‘lady computers’

Annie Scott Dill Russell was born in 1868 in Strabane, the daughter of a Reverend.

Clearly of fierce intelligence, she won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and became one of the first female scientists to work at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

In the courtyard of the observatory, looking over the park, curator Dr Louise Devoy, tells me what little they know about her work.

The Royal Observatory, GreenwichImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1933

“She was one of what we now call the ‘lady computers’ employed in the early 1890s by the then Astronomer Royal, William Christie,” she explains.

“I believe she came from Northern Ireland and she worked here for several years on very low pay just like many of the computers here, both male and female.

“In terms of what she actually did here, we have very little concrete record or photographs.'”

‘Grit and devotion’

Female scientists were hindered because of their gender until the 1920s and 30s, despite superb skills and experience, says Dr Devoy.

At Greenwich, employing women with a university education in mathematics was an audacious experiment.

Women were only considered because the Astronomer Royal needed skilled assistants but could afford only lowly computers – historically, schoolboys on a wage of £4 per month.

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland
Walter MaunderImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Walter Maunder met Annie after the death of his first wife and collaborated with her until his death

Maunder was offered a post as a lady computer, which meant a huge drop in pay for someone who had been working, briefly, as a school teacher.

Letters show that she appealed for more money but was turned down.

The lady computers would carry out routine calculations to turn raw observations into usable data. They were also trained to use telescopes.

At times, this meant walking through Greenwich Park at night without a chaperone, an activity that was frowned on at the time.

“In an age when many middle-class women were still chaperoned, the grit and devotion of these young women astronomers, clad in their clumsy long gowns as they worked at their telescopes or in the laboratories, were surely remarkable,” wrote the science historian and astronomer Mary T Brück.

In 1892, the names of Annie Russell and fellow Greenwich astronomer Alice Everett were put forward to become fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society.

However, they failed to gain enough of the popular vote in a secret ballot and were rejected.

The RAS had long argued that since the pronoun “he” was used in the charter, women could not be admitted alongside men.

Instead, Annie Russell and Alice Everett, who had studied together at Cambridge, joined the amateur British Astronomical Association (BAA).

Alice Everett grew tired of the low pay and left Greenwich, eventually developing an interest in the new field of television. Annie Russell stayed on.

“She was clearly very tough and wanted to follow her science,” says Dr Bowler.

“She sat the [difficult] mathematical Tripos at a time when women couldn’t actually be awarded a degree and there were even protests at Cambridge against the whole idea of giving women degrees.

“So she was clearly tough enough to do that and to do it well and to succeed then in getting employment as a scientist, which was fairly rare anyway – astronomy was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit.”

Studying the Sun

Annie Russell married her colleague Edward Walter Maunder in 1895.

Under civil service rules, as a married woman, she was forced to give up her paid position, bringing the age of lady computers to an end.

“She did come back as a volunteer during the First World War and then she was taken on as a paid employee later in the 1920s,” says Dr Devoy.

On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting togetherImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting together
Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipseImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipse

Annie worked alongside Walter taking photographs of the Sun, laying the groundwork for a modern understanding of solar activity.

“They would take photographs of the Sun every clear day just to note where the sunspots were and to sketch where they were,” says Dr Bowler. “But she also, as a trained mathematician, put quite a bit of effort into analysis. She wasn’t just writing things down; she wasn’t just Walter’s assistant.”

Annie Maunder went on many scientific expeditions to observe eclipses around the turn of the century, often as the only woman. She travelled to Lapland, India, Algiers, Mauritius and Labrador.

She even designed her own camera to take spectacular pictures of the Sun, including the first photograph ever of streamers from the Sun’s outer layer, or corona.

“She particularly caught an extremely long ray – a streak of the corona – coming out from the Sun, while it was eclipsed, that nobody had ever seen before – a feature of the corona that people just didn’t know about,” says Dr Bowler.

“I’ve seen photos of her adjusting the instruments. She’s taking her photographs. She’s not at all a passenger.

“It may have been only socially acceptable for her to go because she’s travelling with her husband but she was on official scientific expeditions and her photographs were acknowledged as among the best.”

The Heavens and Their Story

The conventions of the time meant that Annie’s photographs were published under her husband’s name and she could not speak at scientific meetings.

However, she was eventually made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1916, 24 years after first being proposed.

Annie Maunder medal Image copyright RAS
Image caption The RAS has set up the Annie Maunder medal

She was involved with promoting astronomy to a general audience as vice president of the BAA and edited the in-house journal.

In 1908, the Maunders published the book, The Heavens and Their Story, which was aimed at popular science.

The book was released under both their names, but her husband acknowledged in the preface that it was almost all her work.

The Maunders are also well known for the butterfly diagram, which shows how the number of sunspots varies with time, and the Maunder Minimum, a period in the 17th Century when sunspots all but disappeared.

Much of their work still holds true today.

Annie’s legacy

This year, Annie’s name is being remembered through the inaugural Annie Maunder Medal, to recognise public engagement in science.

“She is an ideal person for that medal to be named after,” says Dr Bowler. “That’s largely what she was doing, certainly later in her career.”

Annie Maunder died in 1947, long after her husband.

On a leafy street near Clapham Common I find the Victorian terraced house where she spent her final years.

From the outside there is nothing to speak of the pioneering scientist.

Yet, despite perhaps not getting the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, she clearly left her mark on science.

“From her letters which are in the Royal Astronomical Society archives she was a very strong-minded, very decided personality,” says Sue Bowler.

“She didn’t mince her words. She’s really quite amusingly rude in some of her letters and very precise.

“I really admire her – she’s one of the people I would definitely have at my dream dinner party – I think she would be extraordinarily interesting.

“And her thoughts, her opinions about the paper based on her observations are very modern and form the basis for solar physics through a lot of the years following.”

Holey Swiss: Man Breaks Record in British Downhill Cheese Race

cheese
The champion cheese chaser, brie-umphant. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Some heroes wear capes. Others fling themselves down hills in pursuit of an 8-pound wheel of cheese.

As the BBC reports, a British man has set a record for the most cheeses won in the annual downhill cheese chase that takes place in the English county of Gloucestershire. Chris Anderson has won 22 races in the past 14 years; this year, he won the first and third of the three men’s races.

Anderson said his strategy was to “just run and try and stay on your feet,” according to the Press AssociationFor his efforts, he will get to take home the double Gloucester cheeses that he successfully chased.

Unfortunately, Anderson only likes cheddar.

It is not entirely clear when Gloucestershire’s unusual sporting event, which takes place in the village of Brockworth, first began. According to journalist Fraser McAlpine, the tradition could go back as far as the 15th century, possibly evolving from a “Beltane-style ritual of rolling burning bundles of wood.” In a 2014 article, the BBC reported that the earliest reference to the race was found in an 1826 message to the Gloucester Town Crier, but it seems to have been an established tradition by that point.

The rules of the game are simple: participants must chase a ball of cheese down Cooper’s Hill, which is so steep that it’s practically impossible to run down without tumbling over.

And tumble the contestants do. In 1997, a record 33 participants were injured—some even broke bones. Over his storied athletic career, Anderson has broken his ankle and bruised his kidneys.

cheese
Can you chase a ball of cheese down Cooper’s Hill? (Public Domain)

In 2010, officials cancelled the race due to safety concerns, but rogue fromage fiends have continued to stage the event regardless. The BBC reports that “thousands of spectators” turned out to watch the most recent installment of the games.

This year, the race got dirty—and even weirder than usual. ”[T]he kid next to me was pulling my shirt all the way down,” Anderson told British media. His spotlight was also threatened by an Australian who showed up to the race wearing nothing but a swimsuit stamped with the words “budgie smuggler.”

But ultimately, Anderson prevailed. “I’ve got nothing to prove now,” he said of his record-breaking win, according to the BBC. “I’m happy.”

SMITHSONIAN.COM

Lucian Freud and Sue Tilley: The story of an unlikely muse

One of Lucian Freud’s more famous paintings depicts a fertility goddess having a nap on her sofa. She is naked and seems to be deep in unguarded sleep (her face is partly squished and she looks like she might be drooling). Despite this, she is majestic; she has curves on her curves, and they phosphoresce gently in shades of brown, pink, and white. How did the artist sneak up on her? Will he survive her wrath when she wakes up?

(Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) broke records when it was sold to Roman Abramovich in 2008 for £17 million ($33.6 million) (Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

No need to worry. For one thing, the goddess isn’t actually asleep: Freud painted her in that pose in sessions spread over many months – he liked to paint from life, and he was fussy, layering and working oil paint until it looks like slathered mud. But for another, the goddess isn’t actually a goddess: she is Sue Tilley, at the time working as a supervisor in a government Jobcentre in London (the title of the painting is Benefits Supervisor Sleeping), and she is as generous on the inside as she is on the outside.

 

In person, Tilley has a lot of presence, and you realise that Freud’s paintings tap into this. She was in her 30s in the paintings; she is 60 now. She is very kind, dead honest, quick to smile. She has the startling sophistication of someone who has been around the block a few times. And what a block.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley was close friends with the Australian performance artist and club promoter Leigh Bowery – here photographed with his parents Evelyn and Thomas, 1984 (Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley led a Technicolor life long before she met Freud: she was close friends with the ‘total’ artist Leigh Bowery and when she wasn’t at her desk in the office she was part of the anarchic clubbing set in London in the 1980s, centring on notorious nights with names like Blitz and Kinky Gerlinky, but especially Bowery’s own creation, Taboo. The latter was one of the wilder and glitzier moments in a decade of egregious moments (polysexual, polysocial, polyeverything), and one of those avant-garde detonations whose effects can still be felt far away in the mainstream.

Wild nights

There is a large literature on the visual genius of Bowery. His exquisitely executed alter egos were nightmarish (in the fecund sense), often powerfully sexualised, sometimes purely beautiful, always resonant. Bowery ignored the boundaries of taste. He was a prodigy in all senses, but perhaps particularly in the old sense of an omen, a shooting star streaking across the night sky. Like so many of the remarkable gay men of that period, he was erased by Aids.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Bowery was also a muse for Lucian Freud; Tilley photographed him (pictured right) with the artist David Holah at her flat in Camden (Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley’s Instagram account offers a mood board that includes her 80s adventures: she says she didn’t consider it a good night unless she’d got drunk enough to fall over at some point. Although Tilley was Dorothy in this Land of Oz, her place in posterity really is guaranteed by a series of four nude portraits which Freud did of her in the late phase of his career. All are likely to remain of art-historical significance.

(Credit: Alamy)

Freud paid Tilley a small daily fee but she didn’t receive any money from the sale of paintings she modelled for (Credit: Alamy)

Of those, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) is probably, and deservedly, the most famous. Evening in the Studio (1993), the first of the series, has her sprawled on the floor with a seated girl apparently disinterested and reading a book in the background. The composition is an odd combination of domestic scene and crime scene. (Tilley says she was relieved when Freud bought the sofa because it was painful to lie on the floor for hours.)

All of these paintings are in the hands of extremely rich men, capable of paying tens of millions of dollars for the privilege of gazing on Tilley’s ‘flesh’

Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) depicts Tilley in the corner of the sofa with her head lolling back, as if she’d just swallowed some poison; a position that could not have been comfortable either. Finally, in Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (1996) Tilley is shown sleeping upright in a chair, facing us. I like that painting because the juxtaposition with the lions in the background suggests that Tilley’s grandeur is epic. (Quite true, I’d say.) She hates that painting because she says it makes her look awful.

Freud once revealed: “If I am putting someone in a picture I like to feel that they’ve fallen asleep there or they’ve elbowed their own way in: that way they are there not to make the picture easy on the eye or more pleasant, but they are occupying the space of my picture and I am recording them.” This unflinching gaze produced works that resonate deeply with viewers. “The task of the artist,” Freud said, “is to make the human being uncomfortable, and yet we are drawn to a great work of art by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent; the dog isn’t free, it can’t do otherwise, it gets the scent and instinct does the rest.”

All of Freud’s paintings of Tilley are in ‘private collections’, ie the hands of extremely rich men, capable of paying tens of millions of pounds for the privilege of gazing on her ‘flesh’ (Freud’s word). For instance, Roman Abramovich set a then-record for the largest amount paid for a painting by a living artist when he bought Benefits Supervisor Sleeping in 2008 for £17 million ($33.6 million at the time). If you want to see it, you might want to become very good friends with him. Be prepared to become a Chelsea supporter, because he owns that football club too.

(Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

Freud has been called an “unrivalled interpreter of human flesh in paint”; he painted Sleeping by the Lion Carpet in 1996 (Credit: Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images)

Another one, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, is on display as part of the show All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, currently on at Tate Britain in London until the end of August 2018. That painting is on loan from a billionaire who among other things owns Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Catch it before he hangs it back up in his guest toilet.

Benefits Supervisor Resting, meanwhile, has been described as “Freud’s ultimate tour de force, a life-size masterwork in the grand historical tradition of the female nude, painted obsessively with intense scrutiny and abiding truth”; when it was sold at auction in 2015, Christie’s head of post-war art Brett Gorvy said that the painting “is recognised internationally as Freud’s masterpiece and proclaims him as one of the greatest painters of the human form in history alongside Rembrandt and Rubens”. Gorvy described the painting as “a triumph of the human spirit, showcasing Freud’s love of the human body”, commenting on Tilley that Freud “observed every inch of her with an uncritical eye almost daily for more than nine months”.

(Credit: Alamy)

Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) has been described as ‘a triumph of the human spirit, showcasing Freud’s love of the human body’ (Credit: Alamy)

According to Gorvy, Tilley “is calm and confident, relaxed and comfortable in her own skin. She is very much in control, taking on the artist and the viewer. A contemporary take on the Odalisque and the fertility goddess, with her head flung back, she exudes an intriguing ambiguity, implying ecstasy, defiance and the deep exhale of peacefulness.” Benefits Supervisor Resting went on to sell for £35 million ($56 million).

None of the money that has rained down on her representations has made its way to Tilley. When she was posing for Freud he paid her a small daily fee (she told The Guardian that she thought she’d been picked out by Freud as a life model because she represented good value for money – “He got a lot of flesh”).

She liked Freud because he was ‘hilarious’ and loved to gossip with her

Yet, she says, she had the pleasure of his company. She liked him because he was ‘hilarious’ and loved to gossip with her. (Tilley met Freud through Bowery, who was also being painted by him.) She found Freud’s mercurial personality fascinating: she says he could be “mean, extremely generous, grumpy, funny, loud, quiet”; also manipulative, but perhaps in a rather charmingly transparent way. Grumpy seems to have won out, because eventually he dropped her as a friend after taking offence at an offhand remark she made.

(Credit: Tate photography, Joe Humphrys)

Freud’s Sleeping by the Lion Carpet is currently on show as part of All Too Human at Tate Britain (Credit: Tate photography, Joe Humphrys)

Freud gave her some etchings, which she sold years ago because she was short of money, but otherwise she has no mementos. She says he didn’t phone to say thank you after his first painting of her sold for a large sum of money.

She has a £60 printed copy of Freud’s portrait of Leigh Bowery (now in Tate Britain) on the wall of her flat. In 1997 she published Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon, which must be his most definitive biography. It also captures the London club subcultures of the Bowery era very vividly.

From muse to maker

Tilley has retired from the Jobcentre and moved from London to a quiet seaside town in East Sussex. But she is not dozing off. She enjoys frequent visits from artists, creatives, and journalists from around the world who want to talk about Freud, Bowery, and Tilley. And the walls of her flat are vibrant with art, some of it by friends, but most by her. She learned how to draw when she was young and then dropped it, but she has recently taken it up again. She is good.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley has been painting for years: this 2016 image shows Trojan, one of the people in Leigh Bowery’s circle in the 1980s (Credit: Sue Tilley)

Through friends and accident, she ended up having a large solo show of paintings and drawings at an east London gallery in 2015. It caught her a little by surprise, but got her working flat out to produce pieces to fill the gallery. Her style is sketchy, maybe a little cartoonish, self-assured. The effect of her anti-aesthetic is charming. She focuses on the personal: portraits of friends, drawings of everyday objects which she sometimes affectionately calls ‘boring’ but which she loves.

Tilley elaborates on this low-key universe in a further step in her artistic career: her collaboration with the S/S18 Fendi Men’s collection, where luxury clothes and bags are decorated with her pictures of desk lamps, bottle openers, banana skins, cups of coffee. Fendi calls this “corporate escapism” and it is undeniably fun; although you would need to be escaping after light-heartedly robbing a bank, since a T-shirt with a drawing of a martini goes for about £480. I suppose one can’t really complain, since a painting of Tilley goes for upwards of 35,000 times that amount. It is long past time that she got a bigger piece of the action.

(Credit: Sue Tilley)

Tilley describes this image she painted on a plate as The Benefit Supervisor Has Woken Up (Credit: Sue Tilley)

So, onward for Sue Tilley and her remarkable life. At one point she shows me a nude self-portrait that she painted on a plate for a charity auction. The image echoes Benefits Supervisor Resting, except she is sitting upright and alert, her eyes open. She tells me the title is The Benefit Supervisor Has Woken Up. I would say she never went to sleep. Such a pity that Freud isn’t alive to sit for her.

By Cameron Laux 14 May 2018

In fifth-century Europe, socks were usually worn by “holy” people to symbolize purity

Featured image
The earliest known surviving pair of socks Author: David Jackson  CC BY-SA 2.0

Although nowadays socks seem to be nothing more than just a simple detail of one’s outfit, the fact is that they have come a long way and dramatically evolved over the centuries. Socks are considered by many as being the oldest type of clothing to have ever existed, dating back to the Stone Age when our ancestors first started using animal skin for the purpose of covering their feet and ankles in order to provide much-needed warmth and comfort.

The oldest known surviving pair of socks was discovered in the city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. They date back to 300-500 A.D. and were created by needle-binding. Today, these strange looking ancient socks are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum explains that:

“The Romano-Egyptian socks were excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They were given to the Museum in 1900 by Robert Taylor Esq., ‘Kytes,’ Watford. He was the executor of the estate of the late Major Myers and these items were selected among others from a list of textiles as ‘a large number of advantageous examples.”

It appears that humans have embraced the benefits of wearing socks since the earliest cultures and civilizations, including people of Ancient Greece. The famed Greek poet, Hesiod, gives us one of the first written accounts of the importance of keeping our feet warm by using “piloi,” ancient type of socks made from matted animal hair.

 In his didactic poem entitled Works and Days, Hesiod advises his brother Perses to protect himself by using this particular type of ancient socks: “Around your feet, tie your sandals made from brutally hunted oxen skin and, under these, dress them in piloi.” 

They came, they saw, they wore socks with sandals. As you might have already guessed, we are talking about the Ancient Romans. Several years ago, an archaeological dig in North Yorkshire brought archaeologists to a conclusion that Roman legionnaires wore socks with sandals. Although one can rarely see an Ancient Roman sculpture that features socks, the fact is that Ancient Romans, similarly to the Ancient Greeks, also wore socks for protection against cold weather.

While Ancient Greeks and Romans used socks for functional purposes, among Europeans of the 5th century A.D., socks become known as puttees and were usually worn only by “holy” people to symbolize purity.

Status symbols, both financial and cultural, have existed for quite a long time throughout our history with every era being defined by a different one. We all know the status symbols of our own era, but one might be surprised to find out that around 1,000 years ago a rather strange object was considered a mark of social standing, and that was, believe it or not, a pair of colored socks.

It was not until 1000 A.D. that socks became a prominent object in everyday life and a symbol of wealth among the nobility. However, this changed with the invention of the knitting machine in 1589, which made it possible for socks to be knitted far faster than knitting them by hand as people did before. A strange new substance known as nylon was introduced in 1938 which caused a revolution in the entire textile industry and changed sock production forever.

 

Today in the 21st century, socks can be found for any kind of need, purpose, or style; the only thing that remains a struggle is to keep one pair of socks complete.

 Alex .A

Alzheimer’s researchers win brain prize

Alzheimer's disease brain compared to normalImage copyright  SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image captionAlzheimer’s disease brain (left) compared to normal (right)

Four dementia scientists have shared this year’s 1m Euro brain prize for pivotal work that has changed our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.

Profs John Hardy, Bart De Strooper, Michel Goedert, based in the UK, and Prof Christian Haass, from Germany, unpicked key protein changes that lead to this most common type of dementia.

On getting the award, Prof Hardy said he hoped new treatments could be found.

He is donating some of his prize money to care for Alzheimer’s patients.

Much of the drug discovery research that’s done today builds on their pioneering work, looking for ways to stop the build-up of damaging proteins, such as amyloid and tau.

Alzheimer’s and other dementias affect 50 million people around the world, and none of the treatments currently available can stop the disease.

Path to beating Alzheimer’s

Prof Hardy’s work includes finding rare, faulty genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

These genetic errors implicated a build-up of amyloid as the event that kick-starts damage to nerve cells in Alzheimer’s.

Profs Hardy and De StrooperImage copyright  MICHELLE ROBERTS
Image captionProfs Hardy and De Strooper discussed how they would spend the prize money

This idea, known as the amyloid cascade hypothesis, has been central to Alzheimer’s research for nearly 30 years.

Together with Prof Haass, who is from the University of Munich, Prof Hardy, who’s now at University College London, then discovered how amyloid production changes in people with rare inherited forms of Alzheimer’s dementia.

How one woman and her family transformed Alzheimer’s research

Prof Goedert’s research at Cambridge University, meanwhile, revealed the importance of another damaging protein, called tau, while Prof De Stooper, who is the new director of the UK Dementia Research Institute at UCL, discovered how genetic errors that alter the activity of proteins called secretases can lead to Alzheimer’s processes.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Our congratulations go to all four of these outstanding scientists whose vital contributions have transformed our understanding of the complex causes of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The fact that three of these researchers work in the UK reflects the country’s position as a global leader in dementia research.”

Prof Hardy said he would be donating around 5,000 euros of his share of the 1m euros from the Lundbeck Foundation to help campaigns to keep Britain in the EU, and called Brexit a “unmitigated disaster” for scientific research.

He also pledged his thanks to all the people with Alzheimer’s who, over the years, have volunteered to help with dementia research.

Haemochromatosis: ‘Celtic curse’ gene can cause major organ damage

Sheenagh Lundy
Image captionSheenagh Lundy suffers from haemochromatosis or what is sometimes called the “Celtic Curse”.

Shenagh Lundy was diagnosed with Genetic haemochromatosis (GH). when she was 18.

The disorder sometimes known as ‘the Celtic curse’ causes the body to absorb excessive amounts of iron.

The iron is deposited in various organs including the liver, heart, pancreas and the joints causing an iron overload.

Once regarded as rare, as many as one in eight people in Ireland are now found to be carrying the gene.

BBC News NI Health Correspondent Marie-Louise Connolly explains Haemochromatosis (http://www.bbc.com/news/av/embed/p05zrkt9/43245267)

The symptoms can include extreme tiredness, joint pain and in extreme cases it can cause damage to vital organs.

Shenagh is now 25 and working as a nurse in Newry, but the condition can still leave her feeling exhausted.

“I knew there was something not quite right when at 18. I was always feeling tired and lethargic. Up to then I had been active going to the gym. I had pains in my joints especially in my knuckles which were very painful. ”

Exhausted and lethargic

The underlying cause is the inheritance of a mutated gene which stops the body’s control of iron from working properly. It can only be inherited and can’t be caught from anybody else. It can however be passed on by having a child.

While a person can carry the gene that doesn’t necessarily mean they will present with symptoms.

Shennagh Lundy and Nurse.
Image captionSheenagh Lunday was diagnosed with haemochromatosis at the age of 18

Shenagh told the BBC that her blood was tested and found to be carrying the haemochromatosis gene.

“I had never heard of it then and I had to start doing a lot of research. I was amazed to find out that it is a celtic disease but no one in my family had ever heard of it either.

Now we’ve all been tested and my parents are both carriers but my brother doesn’t have it. ”

Dr Johnny Cash
Image captionConsultant Hepatolgist Dr Johnny Cash

Dr Johnny Cash is a consultant hepatologist at the regional liver unit at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital.

“The Celtic curse refers to both the prevalence and incidence of the disease in the Irish population but also because the genes have been detected as far back as the Neolithic era in a woman who lived back then just south of Omagh. Her body was exhumed over 5 years ago as were two men who lived on Rathlin Island in the Bronze age. All were found to have the Celtic gene.”

To detect whether a person has too much iron in the blood a ferritin or blood test can be carried out. High levels of ferritin can indicate an iron storage disorder. The typical ranges are 20 to 500 nanograms per millilitre in men; while 20 to 200 in women. Shenagh’s first reading was 316.

That’s considered high. In order to release the iron around a pint of blood is withdrawn. For some people this can mean attending hospital several times a year until the iron levels are reduced.

nurse drawing blood
Image captionAround a pint of blood is withdrawn to release the iron content

Shenagh said after giving blood she normally feels much better and energy levels are restored.

“Beforehand I’m usually very tired. My joints are sore especially my knuckles.

Then I get the procedure done and within a day I am back feeling a lot better. ”

The blood that is taken is considered ‘good blood’ and once treated can be used by the transfusion service.

Dr Johnny Cash says more people are now aware of the condition.

“Haemochromatosis is no more prevalent now than it would have been in the past however we are getting better at public awareness of the condition and word of mouth is certainly playing a part.

Around 20,000 people in Northern Ireland have it but there could be more who aren’t aware. ”

Early detection of this condition is possible and recommended so that it can be treated early.

 

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