“The Mystery of the Ringworm – Where Did it Come From?”
By Bob Kaster
The year was probably 1953. I was eleven years old and in the sixth grade. We were living in King City, California, a small agricultural town on Highway 101 in the Salinas Valley. My family lived in King City for about three years, which, looking back, I consider to be quite high on my list of happy time periods in my life. I am a septuagenarian, and for the most part, my memory sucks. But I am amazed at how clearly I can remember events, places, and peoples’ names from that three-year period of my life, some sixty five years ago.
My dad was freshly out of medical school, and King City was his first job as an actual medical doctor. He was a general practitioner, but also took on the job of being the Public Health Officer for that part of Monterey County where King City was located.
In those days medical doctors actually made house-calls. I would venture to say that over the three-year period we lived there, my dad had been in at least ninety per cent of the houses in town. Because the town had no medical specialists, in emergency situations he often had to deal with conditions that in today’s world would be handled by, say, an orthopedic or neurological surgeon.
He also wasn’t a dermatologist, but, because of his Public Health Officer role, had to deal with the Great King City Ringworm Epidemic.
Ringworm is a skin infection caused by fungus, and is contagious. It can occur anywhere on the body, but in King City’s case it was occurring with alarming frequency in the scalps of school-aged kids. It was bad enough that the schools had regular drills where each student was required to have his or her scalp examined by the school nurse with the use of an ultraviolet magnification device.
The big mystery was to determine the source. Barber shops and hair salons were the first suspects, but were ruled out after extensive scientific testing. Then the municipal swimming pool became the next suspect. The testing process was difficult and time consuming, so in the meantime it was ordered that everyone who swam in the public pool, male or female, was required to wear a bathing cap. At that time it was still fashionable for the girls to wear bathing caps, but for the boys, it would have been humiliating except everyone had to do it. It didn’t solve the problem though.
After ruling out several suspects, the real culprit was eventually identified. It was the local movie theater! Most of the ringworm cases occurred at the back of the scalp, and most of the movie theater patrons were young people. Elementary my dear Watson! Problem solved. It was pretty easy to sanitize the movie theater to prevent further spread of the disease, and the people who had contracted it were ultimately cured.
But here is the rest of the story. The Great King City Ringworm Epidemic occurred around 1953. There was a blonde girl that was a good friend (and who I was in lust with, to the extent that an eleven-year- old boy can experience lust [he can]). Seven or eight years later I was going to college at the University of Arizona, and my parents were living in San Jose. On my way to San Jose at the end of the school year, I stopped in King City. I had heard that the blonde girl had a summer job as a life guard, so I stopped off at the swimming pool to see her.
The blonde girl was more beautiful than ever.
But here is what really got my attention!! The swimming pool was still requiring all swimmers, male and female, to wear bathing caps. There is a message there somewhere, and maybe you can help me figure out what it is.
This story has taken on greater significance in today’s world of COVID-19. One can only wonder if people will still be wearing face masks years from now.