Friday, March 2, 2012


Pathology Laffs is a gag cartoon/performance series demonstrating just how funny disease and physiology can be. On the page these jokes rely on the reader's understanding epidemiology, anatomy, physiology, or pathogenesis to fully appreciate the context of the humor. Lucky for everyone, I usually present these slides in a live performance that includes explanations of the scientific and humoral (pun intended) mechanisms at work in the context of the imagery.

Phun With Phagocytes is about a specific kind of phagocyte - macrophages (white blood cells)! Phagocytosis is the ingestion or eating of microbes, pathogens, and other materials. Here are some select cartoons from the series. You won't get the full lecture here, but I include some explanatory text with each cartoon.

The bacterium says to the macrophage, "My perfume? Why it's activated complement proteins. Do you like it?" This is so obvious as to be insulting, but here's a brief explanation anyway.

Complement is a protein found in the blood. It plays an important role in immunity by adhering to bacteria, making them more tasty to white blood cells. Once "activated" complement also acts as an attractor, enabling white blood cells to "sniff out" bacteria. The protein can destroy bacteria in all sorts of ways but for the sake of this joke the most important factor is the chemotactic attraction (sniffing out) induced by the complement. 

Here I have rendered the macrophage and (particularly) the bacterium with stereotypically gendered features such as eyelashes. This emphasizes the sexist dialogue built on the assumption that women (and female bacteria) wear perfume to attract a mate, and not for their own pleasure. The cliche of dialogue, gendered imagery, and the implied romantic "embrace" of the bacterium by the macrophage's pseudopodia imply a tender moment. 

However, in truth this macrophage is preparing to phagocytize the bacterium. Humor is thereby created by presenting a fatal act of immunological function as a romantic scene.

In this cartoon the macrophage says to the motor neuron and the pancreatic beta cell, "Whew! Which one of you two released a vesicle?!?" Although this is a "fart joke" and therefore in poor taste, I hope you will appreciate that it is a fart joke staged uniquely around macrophage metabolism. Different cells release a variety of substances as waste products or as chemicals necessary to the body's metabolism.

Motor neurons secrete the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in order to transmit nerve impulses. Pancreatic beta cells secrete insulin into the blood stream to help regulate sugar metabolism. BUT macrophages do not secrete or excrete at all. This joke would be funny enough, as it is equating cellular secretions with flatulence in humans, but the twist is that "he who smelt it" is physically incapable of having "dealt" it!


  1. Dear Ms. Willberg,
    May I use your cartoon (with proper credit) as an illustration for an educational Web site?
    Yours sincerely,
    Maya Markova
    Dept of Biology, Medical University of Sofia, Bulgaria

    1. Dear Ms. Markova,
      Yes you may use my cartoon, with proper credit. Thank you for asking! I'm flattered. And curious- which website is it? Best, KW

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thank you very much!
    I have just uploaded the cartoon here:
    It is in the second half of the page. The text is in Bulgarian, but you can see your name and URL under the image.