Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth, By Trevor Norton

Times when doctors turn guinea pig
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Physician, heal thyself" is a pretty good tip, but "Physician, hurt thyself" has been a useful concept too. During research for the common good, many a scientist has risked his neck as if he had a back-up life. Her neck, too, in the case of Marie Curie, who was unable to pick up her first Nobel Prize because of the anaemia she had picked up, probably from a phial of radium.

This was an accident, but others have turned themselves into their own guinea-pigs. John Hunter of the Hunterian Museum deliberately acquired a sexually transmitted disease (at least that was his story). Freud took cocaine "to test its effects" (his story, too). More recently, Frederick Prescott took a mixture of morphine and speed as an experiment in controlling blood pressure. He ended up in hospital.

He then tested the anaesthetic properties of curare, known as "flying death" to the South American hunters who dipped arrows into this fast-acting poison. His experiment was somewhat too successful, but the paralysis eventually wore off.

Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth is Trevor Norton's wonderful tribute to those foolhardy experimenters. Professor Norton writes with engaging fluency and is easily understood by the non-scientist, even if, as with Hunter's self- infliction of syphilis, there can be slightly too much information.

The title refers to the auto- experimental Jack Haldane in his decompression chamber: the high pressure caused one of his teeth to explode and left him with holes in his eardrums through which he could blow smoke rings.

These scientists' selflessness contrasts with the management of a US factory where luminous paint was applied to the dials of watches. The resident physicist was one of many employees killed by the radium in the paint; his bones, placed on a photographic plate, took pictures of themselves. Some of the workforce glowed in the dark. The management glowed too, with pride, retorting that they were at least providing employment – though not, of course, to the workers who had died.

Comments