KEY POINTS

  • Researchers excavated a privy in an area on Dartmouth College's campus
  • They analyzed three fecal samples found in the privy
  • They found evidence of parasite eggs in all three samples
  • An affluent family's home once stood in the area

Even wealthy people weren't spared from parasitic infections in the 19th century. That's what researchers discovered after finding parasite eggs in 200-year-old poop collected from an area where an affluent family's home once stood.

Parasitic infections were quite common in urban areas in North America in the early 19th century, Dartmouth College said in a news release. In particular, such infections were said to be more widespread among those with lower socioeconomic status because of factors such as unsanitary privy (outhouse) conditions and contact with domestic animals in urban settings.

However, in a new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, a team of researchers report evidence that even wealthy, well-educated families in the northeastern U.S. were likely affected by intestinal parasitic infections.

It started in 2019 when researchers excavated a privy in an area on Dartmouth College's campus that was once the site of the Ripley/Choate House. This particular house was constructed in 1786. In 1801, it was purchased by a man named Mill Olcott, who is said to have been "among the wealthiest and most educated people in New England."

The privy turned out to be well-preserved, containing "exotic" items such as ceramics and coffee remains. In it, the researchers also discovered bottles of products that were sold as cures for digestive illnesses. They recovered three fecal samples as well.

When the researchers rehydrated the samples, they found tapeworm and whipworm eggs in each of them. This was quite surprising because such parasites typically thrive in more tropical regions and not in cold, snowy weather that is associated with New Hampshire winters, researchers said.

What's more, even if they did not specifically determine that the samples were from a member of the Olcott family, it's "likely" that the entire household was affected, Dartmouth College noted. This suggests that such parasitic infections were affecting the Dartmouth community at the time.

"These results indicate that despite cold winters inhospitable to most parasite species, relatively good sanitation, accessible medical care, and the low population densities of rural New England, parasite infection was likely a concern even within affluent households," the researchers wrote, noting that the evidence shows how such parasitic infections were "not limited" to poorer households in urban areas.

"Our study is one of the first to demonstrate evidence of parasitic infection in an affluent rural household in the Northeast," study co-author Theresa Gildner said in the university news release. "Until now, there has not been a lot of evidence that parasitic disease was anywhere else other than urban areas in the early 19th century."

Such parasitic infections remain common to this day. The Taenia saginata and T. solium species, for instance, are found worldwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted. These can cause taeniasis, the parasitic infection caused by certain tapeworm species, typically when people eat raw beef. Although higher rates of the illness have been observed in places like Eastern Europe, Asia, India and Latin America, taeniasis is also present in the U.S., with annual cases being "probably" less than 1,000.

The results of the study show that such infections were possibly a concern in the early 19th century, even in the richer rural communities.

"I think that we take a lot of our health and infrastructure that we have today for granted," study co-author Jesse Casana said as per the news release. "Our results show that even wealth could not protect you from these parasitic infections 200 years ago."

Tapeworm (Taenia) eggs Pictured: Representative image of tapeworm eggs as seen under a microscope. Photo: Ciência e Saúde XXI/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain