Moor or Less: A book on a President, parasite and professor

Thomas Platt, a retired Saint Mary’s College biology professor, named a parasite he had identified after a cousin — actually a fifth cousin, twice removed.

It was meant as a tribute.  Parasites are Tom’s thing, after all. He has studied them for decades, and he is a leading authority on one family, the turtle blood flukes.

Thomas Platt expanded his Washington Post essay into a “scientific memoir.”

He even has a couple of parasites named after him. Heck, he even auctioned off the naming rights for one of his parasites at a fund-raiser for this church — bringing in more than $150.

So why would a cousin he never met mind?

The cousin probably didn’t, but a lot of people did — taking it as an insult to our country’s leadership. Tom’s fifth cousin, twice removed, is former President Barack Obama.

And Baracktrema obamai is the name of a certain turtle blood fluke.

“I am certain that Obama knows about the ‘honor’ I bestowed on him whether he likes it or not,” Tom admits. “At last count, he has about a dozen plants and animals named after him. I did send a copy of the Journal of Parasitology to the White House for inclusion in his Presidential Library. I look forward to visiting it when it is completed to see if it is displayed. That is as close as I expect to get to Barack.”

You can read all about how he found out he was related to Barack Obama and much more in Tom’s new book, “Small Science: Baracktrema obamai and Other Stories of a Life in Parasitology & Higher Education (World Scientific Publishing.)

Tom wants to make sure people know that it is not an academic book. “It’s more of a scientific memoir. My hope is that people interested in the world of higher education would like it,” he says.

His interest in parasites did lead to the book, though. After all the hubbub about naming a parasite after our 44th President, he wrote a short essay for the Washington Post. He had titled it, “In Defense of Parasites” although the newspaper changed the heading to “I named a parasite after Barack Obama. It was meant as a compliment.” 

He would have preferred his title. “Parasites are an integral part of our ecosystem,” Tom says. “You see that cute bird or bunny over there and it could be awash with parasites. One of their benefits is that they help pull out the weak, making them easier targets for predators.”

That may sound a little heartless but that’s how the animal kingdom’s food chain often works.

Tom, now 72 and retired since 2015, had his 15 minutes of fame with the presidential parasite and his essay in the Post. But he decided to take the essay and expand it into a book that traced his life and brought him to a point in his career where he had the ability and expertise to name organisms that he had described and classified.

“Of course, no 10-year-old says, ‘I want to be a parasitologist when I grow up,’” Tom says with a smile.

At that age, he wanted to be the center fielder for the New York Yankees. But academics seemed to come more naturally to him than athletics as he grew up.

In “Small Science,” we follow him through his childhood and education … the courtship of his wife Kathy (married to her now for 48 years with two boys and two grandchildren) … not being granted tenure at another college (something that stuck in his craw and always motivated him) … and his 30-year career at Saint Mary’s where he flourished and eventually became the Department of Biology’s chair.

The book also takes him through his many research trips around the world (including almost a year in Australia during one of his sabbaticals) … his interest in turtles and identifying about 30 blood flukes that plague them … and his interaction with his students. Tom also became a bit of an artist, drawing the parasites he studied and even having them displayed at a campus art show.

Yeah, his book may be partly about a President and a parasite, but it’s more about a professor who loved his work, his students and his school.