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How the Most Famous Mutiny in History Could Help Cure Headaches

By: Scott Way

Robert Dodd Painting Mutiny Aboard HMS Bounty
1790 Painting by Robert Dodd Depicting the Mutiny Aboard HMS Bounty / Wikimedia, Public Domain

The most famous mutiny in history aboard the HMS Bounty didn't just result in an incredible saga about surviving 47 days in a lifeboat, it may also be the key to helping migraine sufferers understand their condition.

On April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian and 18 sailors on the HMS Bounty overtook the ship from commanding officer Lieutenant William Bligh. The rabble-rousing mutineers plunked Bligh and his loyal crew in a lifeboat in the South Pacific, leaving them to their destiny. The mutineers headed off to nearby islands in the hopes of living out their days in tropical paradise. Without charts or a compass, Bligh managed to navigate the lifeboat on a 47-day, 3618 nautical mile odyssey before landing haggard but alive on the island of Timor in the Dutch East Indies. It took Bligh two more years to make it back to England to report the incident. For his heroism, he eventually achieved the rank of Vice Admiral of the Royal Navy and his story became the stuff of legend among sailors and survivalists.

Strangely, some 230 years after Bligh's famous escapade, his mutineers and their descendants may be the key to understanding the mysteries of migraine headaches.

What became of Bligh's mutineers is an interesting tale itself. Some mutineers settled in Tahiti and others on Pitcairn Island. The Pitcairn settlers burned the Bounty in what is now known as Bounty Bay.

The mutineers on Pitcairn made out pretty well, some married natives or Tahitians and started families. By 1855, there were about 200 settlers, but due to outgrowing their arable land they asked Queen Victoria for help. Despite their backstory, she granted them access to Norfolk Island, a former penal colony thousands of miles to the west. And so the troublemakers and their descendants abandoned Pitcairn and settled again on Norfolk Island, where roughly half the island's population (approx. 2000 people) are now direct descendants of the HMS Bounty. But all is not well on Norfolk- a significant portion of the population suffer from debilitating migraines. While only about 12% of the Caucasian population are sufferers, on Pitcairn its nearly twice as high at 24%. On top of that, 33% of the females on the island are sufferers as well.

200 years after the initial settlement, researchers discovered the potential of the Bounty-Norfolk population. Due to their lifestyle and isolation, they are ideal candidates for understanding the genetic basis for migraines. With restrictions on immigration, plus the added bonus of having kept good genealogical records, the Norfolk population is a relatively homogenous group where environmental factors and genetic diversity have little outside influence. In turn, this allowed for gene mapping studies with the islanders as subjects.

The research studied 377 direct descendants of the Bounty and discovered that the cause of migraines could be partially hidden in the X chromosome, thus explaining why they are more prevalent in women than men. It also identified two mutations on the X chromosome associated with migraines, allowing future research to potentially identify the specific genes that make people susceptible.

In a strange twist of fate, Bligh's mutiny and miraculous survival at sea could help thousands of migraine sufferers worldwide. So the next time you feel a twinge in your head while docking the boat on a windy day with an inexperienced crew, remember the HMS Bounty and Lieutenant William Bligh. Their headaches on the high seas could mean better boating for you in the future. Until then, remember that a bad day on water is still better than a good day on shore.


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