It's huge.

It's hungry.

It's hermaphroditic.

It leaves a slimy trail of devastation in its wake. And it tastes like damp dirt.

It's what one reporter described as a "monster mollusk."

Yet the giant, menacing invader didn't crash-land on Earth from outer space. Nor was it chiseled from the Antarctic ice by well-meaning scientists as any circa-1950s B horror film worth its admission price would have moviegoers believe.

Achatina, a genus of giant African land snail, was the life's study of Albert R. Mead. For more than 60 years, he was the world's leading authority on the exotic and destructive creature.

Though Mead, a professor at the University of Arizona for half a century, took his work — in the field and in the classroom — seriously, he had a sense of humor about it, referring to himself as a "traveling snailsman."

Though burdened with Alzheimer's disease in later life, Mead, at 89, completed an article for a science journal that compiled all the research he conducted on Achatina since 1946.

"He was struggling so hard to keep his memory and energy going," said his son, Jim Mead, chair of the East Tennessee State University geosciences department.

Albert Mead, a Ph.D., died March 13 from the effects of Alzheimer's. He was 93. His wife of 67 years, Eleanor, was at his side.

Mead, who earned science degrees from the University of California and Cornell University, joined the Army during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, he worked primarily as a parasitologist for the military. His knowledge of mollusks and insects — both of which can transmit disease — made him the ideal candidate for the work.

While serving in West Africa, Mead had his first encounter with the giant African land snail. It was described as giant because its body could stretch to a foot long. Its circumference, sans shell, was the size of an orange, and it weighed up to a pound.

After his discharge from the Army, Mead took a job at the UA as an instructor in the Department of Zoology. In 1949, he again was recruited by the government, this time as a civilian scientist on behalf of the Office of Naval Research and the National Research Council. Mead spent the summer in Micronesia, doing extensive research on what he called the "Achatina problem" on the Pacific islands.

Groundwork for the problem may have begun centuries earlier, Mead speculated in a 1957 Arizona Daily Star article. He suggested the snails, which can survive for long periods of time without food, likely attached themselves to boats that traveled the old trade routes between Africa and the Pacific islands.

It was during World War II that the problem began to grow as Japanese soldiers transported the giant snails from island to island as a food source. In their transplanted homes, the snails had no natural predators and reproduced at a furious pace.

"They have an utterly fantastic reproduction rate," Mead said in a 1969 Star article. "A single snail can produce between 250 and 500 eggs every three or four weeks."

A single giant African land snail and its progeny can produce 16 quadrillion offspring during an average five-year life span, Mead theorized in 1961, the year he published the first of two books on Achatina. The second book was published in 1979, and Mead had published at least 85 articles in scientific journals and popular magazines, including Reader's Digest and Atlantic Monthly.

Problems with the snails occurred when the voracious critters devoured wide swaths of vegetation. The snails also carry a parasite that can drop off the mollusk and onto gardens. If the greens aren't washed thoroughly and the worm is ingested by humans, it can cause a fatal brain disease, Jim Mead said. His father described it in a 1963 article as parasitic "eosinophilic meningoencephalitis."

Mead's wife took her husband's work in stride. As the father of three pursued his grant-funded research, his family followed along, to Africa, the South Pacific, Sri Lanka and Hawaii. In a romantic gesture, Mead named a species of African snail after his beloved Eleanor: Lissachatina eleanorae.

Two scientists named snails in honor of Mead.

The former curator of entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, Joseph Bacquaert, met Mead in Africa during the war. In 1950, he named a West African land snail Bruggenia meadi for his friend.

In 1966, a Ph.D. student of Mead's named a species of Arizona land snail Sonorella meadi. In defending his dissertation before a panel of educators, the student was asked by Mead what differentiated Sonorella meadi from other snails. In response, unwittingly reflecting the dubious nature of the tribute, the student told his mentor the snail had a distinctively small penis, Jim Mead said. Fortunately for the student, the professor had a sense of humor.

It was humor that drew students to Mead's classes on parasitology. Mead, who was head of the UA's zoology department for 11 years, often worked the names of Disney characters into the essay questions on tests and was a masterful storyteller, former student Charlotte Hubbard said.

"He was the finest teacher I ever had at the university," said Hubbard, who took a class from Mead in 1952. "His lectures were absolutely magnificent. You'd forget to take notes, they were so interesting."

the series

This feature chronicles the lives of recently deceased Tucsonans. Some were well-known across the community. Others had an impact on a smaller sphere of friends, family and acquaintances. Many of these people led interesting — and sometimes extraordinary — lives with little or no fanfare. Now you'll hear their stories.

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