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There's More to Full Moon Mania Than Horror Film Monsters, Warns Researcher Ralph Morris

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The moon’s effects seem to incite murder, drug abuse, even angina pain

In most every precinct in the land the police are well aware of the phases of the moon. Surveys have shown that suicides, rapes, robberies, arson, disorderly conduct and mental hospital admissions wax with the moon, and in some areas murders rise 50 percent. For example, mass killer Charles Whitman’s “Texas Tower” massacre in 1966 and Sara Moore’s attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 both occurred during full moons.

Now Dr. Ralph Morris, a pharmacology professor at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, is suggesting that health problems and drug abuse follow moon cycles too. Comedian John Belushi’s heroin-cocaine overdose, for instance, occurred in March at the beginning of the full moon week. (The week includes the three days before the full moon and the three after.)

Of Belushi’s death, Morris argues, “Drugs act in the body according to the lunar cycle. During a full moon, we are most sensitive to certain drugs, particularly in combination, and overdoses are more likely.” People are also especially sensitive when they’re under stress, he adds.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported on the research of Morris, 53, showing the moon’s effects on human ailments. Sixty-four percent of angina pectoris attacks experienced by 88 patients at the University of Illinois Hospital occurred during the seven days between the full and last-quarter moons, Morris reports. Also, bleeding ulcers were most severe just before a full moon, he says, noting that nearly all 1,000 patients with bleeding disorders in a recent survey of a New York hospital hemorrhaged during a full moon. Bleeding in general is affected, he suggests: “One surgeon wrote me that he won’t do elective surgery during full moons because of this.”

Many scientists are skeptical. Dr. Lawrence Weaver, president of the Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences, says, “Dr. Morris is a respected person. But until I see a lot of evidence [to support his theory], I would treat it as undocumented research.” Morris admits his data are from unstructured situations—”You can’t isolate a man for a month, and you can’t get out of the moon’s gravity.” But he says his critics are “scared silly of something in which they’ve had no instruction.”

Since 1971 some 500 University of Illinois students have taken Morris’ course in chronopharmacology—the study of how time affects responses to drugs. Currently Morris and his class are examining the moon’s aggravating effects on high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, migraine headaches, glaucoma, psoriasis, thyroid dysfunction and gall bladder attacks. He theorizes that strokes, diabetic comas and epileptic seizures are more likely to occur during full moons.

Why the moon has such a grip on earthlings has been debated through the ages. The 16th-century physician Paracelsus said that “lunacy grows worse at full and new moon, because the brain is the microcosmic moon.” In Othello, Shakespeare wrote: “It is the very error of the moon; she comes more near the earth than she was wont, and makes men mad.” England’s Lunacy Acts of 1842 defined a lunatic—derived from the Latin luna, or moon—as someone “afflicted with a period of fatuity in the period following after the full moon.”

Morris contends that the moon, while making its elliptical orbit around the earth, causes gravitational and geomagnetic fluctuations, which influence human metabolism. The greatest fluctuations, as seen with the tides, occur during the seven-day periods of new and full moons.

“Full moons seem to increase tensions and anxiety,” Morris observes. “Insomnia seems to be worse during full moons because we can’t lower our tensions.” Drivers are more aggressive and domestic quarrels more common. A new moon, which is invisible because its dark side faces the earth, has similar effects, though less dramatic, Morris maintains.

There are reasons for skepticism. Morris’ examples may not be meaningful, since statistically almost one in every two deaths or illnesses is likely to occur during new moon or full moon periods. And Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin and the Who’s Keith Moon, among others, all OD’d in “off” periods.

Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Morris received a B.A. in psychology and a master’s in zoology from Ohio University before completing his Ph.D. in pharmacology at the University of Iowa in 1955 and joining the faculty at Illinois. In 1967 he first noted that laboratory mice seemed more sensitive to morphine during full moons.

Morris concedes that his wife, Virginia, and their five children “always thought my research was unusual.” His youngest son, Todd, 22, who has a master’s degree in biology from Northwestern University, challenges the validity of his father’s narrowly focused surveys. Ralph counters, “Large-scale studies aren’t necessary to produce statistically valid results.”

Those who agree with Morris that his theories aren’t a howl may want to stay in bed with the covers pulled up over their heads all day on Saturday, May 8. That is the next full moon.