Health: Helping audience catch science bug

A childhood insect hunter turned parasite expert Dr James Logan is now sharing his expertise with millions

PERHAPS it was the moment he ran into his aunt’s home, his hands full of worms, delightfully showing her the wriggling, muddy creatures.

Perhaps it was when he started his own wildlife club with two pals, making up astounding, if hugely inaccurate facts, about the insects he found to impress them. Or perhaps it was just biology classes at North Berwick High.

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Whenever it began, whatever the inspiration, Dr James Logan’s fascination with bugs, and more latterly ticks, parasites, worms and the diseases they bring with them has now made him a household name.

The dishy doc – and that’s one of the milder adjectives used by his many female Twitter followers – is now perhaps the best-known entomologist on TV after Edinburgh’s Dr George McGavin. The pair have even worked together on The One Show, and Dr Logan has also appeared on Bang Goes the Theory, but it’s been the last two series of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies which have catapulted him into the limelight.

The shows, which generally revolve around people with weird and wonderful physical ailments exposing them to a television audience and the medical minds of Dr Christian Jessen and Dr Dawn Harper, pictured right, have taken a more scientific turn since Dr Logan was signed up.

“They came to me with the idea to do a couple of episodes on tropical diseases and medicine, which is my area of expertise, because whenever you go anywhere hot on holiday you’ll likely come into contact with things which bite, or parasites or worms. You can’t travel abroad without being affected by that or knowing that – bitey things are everywhere in the tropics.

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“I was very interested in getting involved because you reach an audience you otherwise might not and hopefully spark an interest in science by relating it to them as individuals. You also get a good public health message across, which is brilliant. When we did our segment on mosquitos I remember Twitter going mental with people talking about the science of it all.

“It was a whole new direction for the show because I’m not a GP and can’t diagnose people. And the production team were keen to do more.”

So keen in fact that this series has seen the 32-year-old investigate how bedbugs go about their business, and how many dust mites can be found in a single mattress, both of which he says fits well with the “embarrassing” theme of the show as no-one wants to admit to being infested by such crawly creatures.

Then there was the hookworm experiment where he allowed the parasites to enter his body through his skin until they got to his lungs when he coughed them up and swallowed them.

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The bizarre scenario led to a temporary abatement of his gluten allergy, and also dovetailed well with his wife Kirsty’s research into food allergies in children.

“Kirsty is a scientist at St Thomas’ Hospital in London and is involved in allergy trials with children. I wouldn’t say she was fascinated by my hookworm experiment, more repulsed,” he laughs. “But at least for the first time ever I was able to eat pizza and garlic bread with her without suffering terrible stomach pains.”

The hookworm parasite lives in the intestine and if there are enough of them can cause huge health problems. Developing countries are where they are most prevalent, and Dr Logan warns that it can be contracted by stepping in soil contaminated with poo from an infected person, or even just in droplets of water on leaves which contain the worms.

“But they can have a beneficial effect on your health, curing or alleviating symptoms of allergies like inflammatory bowel disease. After five weeks with the worms it worked with me, but I had to get rid of them. Kirsty made that clear,” he laughs again. “And as a result my allergy is back.”

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He and Kirsty have been together since their student days in Aberdeen, where Dr Logan studied zoology – leaving with a first-class honours degree. “Which was something, as my school exam results were never that good,” he says. “I was a pretty average pupil at North Berwick High. Music was my best subject – I got an A in that – but I had a great biology teacher who really had a huge impact on my career direction.”

He adds: “I was always interested in animals and insects. I grew up around horses and ducks and chickens, and I remember making paths for ants to follow and collecting worms to show my aunt, much to her horror.

“My dad used to take me to the nature reserve at Aberlady and I spent my pocket money on a book about UK wildlife which let me pretend I knew what I was talking about to my friends. So I guess my fascination with it all began very young.”

After leaving university he and Kirsty went travelling – Thailand, America, Fiji, New Zealand among their itinerary – though it was in Australia where he realised that working with wildlife was really what he wanted to do.

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“It was a brilliant time, we were radio-tracking endangered marsupials, but at the same time we came across brown snakes, redback spiders . . . so when we came back I started my PhD.”

It was this work which brought Dr Logan to the attention of TV producers. His PhD in why some people were bitten by midges while others were not made headline news.

“I spent a few summers being bitten,” he says. “And unfortunately I am very attractive to biting insects. But I discovered that some people had a natural repellent and that was very interesting to a lot of people, so I did a lot of interviews, and I discovered I loved doing that.

“Being able to explain science to people and have them understand it is really what drives me. To be able to make people realise they do have an interest in science – to spark something in them – that is what I’m really passionate about.”

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That passion comes across in the show, which is no doubt partly why he’s developed a firm female following. “It’s embarrassing when I get messages on Twitter, I’m never sure how to respond. It makes me blush,” he admits. “And I don’t let my wife read some of them.”

Clearly TV sees something in him too, as he’s currently working with BBC Scotland on a series about insects which will be broadcast on BBC4 later. It’s all top secret at the moment though. “I can’t say much about that, but I’m hoping to be back in Embarrassing Bodies’ next series. It’s all gone a bit mental at the moment – and I do have my job to do as well.”

The day job is running a research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he oversees a team of 15 people who are looking at ways to control insects which spread deadly diseases such as malaria as well as a company which tests new repellent products for the market, and of course, he teaches on travel health and tropical diseases.

“I think the push for science on television recently has been fantastic. I think there was a fear that we wouldn’t have enough scientists in this country in the future and we’d fall behind the rest of the world, so the Government has run various programmes and TV has really taken it on board and made it entertaining and relevant.”

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He also likes to believe that he and others appearing on TV take the geekery out of science. “I hate the word geek,” he says. “I’m not a geek and the people I work with are not geeks. Some people are proud of that tag, but I think it’s what puts young people off science.

“I love science but I’m into other things as well. For me it’s music and rugby.” And running, which also began in his home town of North Berwick.

“I used to run along the beach and up the Law, I also used to surf sometimes in the winter, not that I’d do that now. But I do enjoy running. I had hoped to do the Edinburgh Marathon this year, my first one, but I was injured and had to pull out. Next year though.

“I don’t get back home often enough – three times a year at the most. I would move back to Scotland in a shot, but the work is in London. And I’ve still got to work on my midge repellent.”

• See Dr Logan in Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic, on Channel 4, Tuesdays, at 7pm.