Life And Health Insurance

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA



The older you get the more offers you will receive from predatory companies offering to insure your life at higher and higher premiums; it is a kind of existential lottery, but unfortunately you have to die in order to collect the prize, so be sure to leave a forwarding address. These companies employ lots of statisticians and risk analysts in their fever to insure a profit. These are the dispassionate and disconnected morticians and Morticias who never have to see the bodies, although a few of them might keep track of the price of formaldehyde sold by the Koch brothers.

Health insurance companies are even worse; they don’t want you to smoke, drink alcohol, have sex, eat cheeseburgers, drink sodas, or eat chocolate, ice cream, or potato chips. These people are corporate Puritans. As H.L. Mencken defined it: “Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”

If you ever have to fill out a questionnaire for either of these types of companies, don’t, for Heaven’s sake, let them know that you are an amateur microscopist or natural historian. As you can well imagine, if you’re a race car driver, a stunt pilot, a fireman, policeman, or double agent for the C.I.A., then the insurance premiums will be very high indeed–obvious, calculable risks. However, for us microscopists and natural historians, the calculable risks have not yet been so obvious and we have been able to hide behind a cloak of secrecy from the dreaded LVAOs (Life Value Assessment Officers). If this acronym and title seem cynical, we really shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that not only insurance companies make such assessments, but juries in law suits, and the military in terms of what they pay families for “collateral damage”.

So, why should we keep our avocations secret? We drive and that’s risky and requires insurance but, everyone has to have that. What the LVAOs don’t know is what kinds of things we do when we get to our favorite collecting spots. Imagine if we had to have amoeba insurance! If these companies knew about Naegleria fowlerii and some of the Acanthamoebae, they would slap extra premiums on us for pond sampling. These amoebae are indeed not to be dismissed lightly. Unsuspecting swimmers in partially polluted ponds have these very small critters invade through the nose and enter the brain to produce a very nasty type of menigo-encephalitis which once contracted is nearly always fatal. Fortunately, such invasions, though dramatic, are relatively rare. Nonetheless, it is wise to take reasonable precautions in collecting and handling cultures of all types, both freshwater and marine. Autopsies on victims of these creatures have revealed brain tissue that is riddled with these organisms. I can envision some creative LVAO coming up with policy titles such as “The Braineater Policy” or “The Zombie Amoeba Policy.” Again, the risk is very small, but real, so be prudent.

As humans, we are constantly at risk from factors in our environment and some of the biological ones are among the most deadly. Joshua Lederberg, the distinguished biochemist commented that he considered the virus to be the greatest threat to the survival of the human species. It is also the case that there is no shortage of deadly bacteria and then we also have to include in our census, protozoa, parasitic roundworms, tapeworms, and flukes and that’s not even taking into account the vectors, such as mosquitoes (the ultimate proof for the non-existence of God or at the very least, a proof for a malevolent God). All of these creatures are ones which the amateur biologist could be exposed to over and over again. The insurance companies aren’t going to like that and they’ll probably write in a clause (in very, very fine print) that if you intentionally expose yourself to mosquitoes, then the policy is null and void. These little horrors can transmit malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, sleeping sickness (Trypanosomiasis), encephalitis, West Nile fever, Zika fever, Chikungunya, filariasis, etc. Then, there will probably be a tse-tse fly clause as well; because we don’t want amateur biologists dozing off in the middle of reading my rambling essays simply because they have contracted sleeping sickness.

Yet two other risk dimensions are significant factors: 1) toxic organisms and 2) predators–both display extraordinary diversity, adaptability, and lethality. I limit my discussion to invertebrates because, if your’e demented enough to try to pet a grizzly bear or nuzzle up to a Great White shark, then I’m not sure that you deserve to remain in the gene pool. It’s true that there are some deadly marine organisms lurking in the oceans, but there is a simple insurance rule of risk minimalization: DON’T GO IN THE WATER! This simple precept solves all kinds of problems and think how much cheaper your insurance will be.

All kinds of dangers present themselves on extraordinarily beautiful coral reefs. There’s that lovely little blue octopus in the tide pools of Australia that can be lethal to humans, small cuboid jellyfish whose toxins can induce respiratory paralysis, sea urchins with hollow spines that can, when stepped on, cause excruciating pain and serious infection, and the list goes on and on.

The insurance companies (if they knew that we were taking all these risks) might send us a letter inquiring why we don’t take up a nice, safe hobby like coin or stamp collecting. At this point, we could bring in a microbiologist to testify regarding how filthy (bacteriologically speaking) coins and stamps are, but we don’t want to cause the LVAOs of the insurance companies to focus on harmless philatelists and numismatists.

And then consider the environments we will endure to collect our samples and specimens. I have climbed up narrow trails to collect fairy shrimp in rock pools; walked out onto marshy meadows to find myself submerged right up to the “naughty bits” (see Monty Python) in sink holes of slimy mud; waded out in lakes with bottoms of sulfurous, glue-like mud that claimed several of my shoes and short wading boots, I’ve fallen on slimy, algae covered rocks around tide pools, picking up a few scars from acorn barnacles, etc. However, these are very pedestrian sorts of undertakings compared to some of the more adventurous sorts that populate our wonderful world of amateurs, some of them taking risks that would cause even the most intrepid actuary to faint.

And I haven’t even mentioned the sorts of things we do in our labs with chemicals and sharp instruments–if those were discovered, we’d never get insurance.

There are advantages to living in a cocoon but, if one refuses to metamorphose, then you will never be able to display your resplendent being as a fragile, iridescent creature floating mysteriously through the invisible aether. Just be sure to take out insurance in case you get hit by an airliner.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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Published in the December 2016 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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