Review: If I Die in the Service of Science

If I Die in the Service of Science: The Dramatic Stories of Medical Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves, by Jon Franklin and John Sutherland, MD. New York: Authors Choice Press, 2003. 320 pp. $22.95 (paperback).


Professor Max Pettenkofer held up a flask containing deadly cholera bacteria. The rapt attention of the students gathered all around him was unsurprising, for the professor had raised the flask in a toast, about to drink it.

Pettenkofer did not believe that he would die. Contrary to the opinions of many scientists, he thought that the billion or so bacteria inside the flask would cause cholera only under certain conditions, conditions that were not present in his experiment. The experiment, he thought, would prove that he was right and that the theories held by others were wrong, settling the issue resolutely. Convinced of the importance of what he was about to do, Pettenkofer made sure that the words he said next were written down:

Even if I be mistaken and this experiment that I am making imperils my life, I shall look death quietly in the face, for what I am doing is no frivolous or cowardly act of suicide, but I shall die in the service of science as a soldier perishes on the field of honor. (p. 178)

With that, Pettenkofer put the flask to his lips and drank.

As to what happens next, you’ll have to read for yourself. The conclusion to that experiment and those of several others of its kind are presented in If I Die in the Service of Science: The Dramatic Stories of Medical Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves. Written by two-time Pulitzer winner Jon Franklin and John Sutherland, MD, the book covers the stories of eight medical scientists who put their lives at risk to advance their chosen fields.

The steady and, at times, fast pace of scientific and industrial progress serves as a backdrop to many of these stories. For example, a chapter on Horace Wells, the discoverer of anesthesia, begins by noting that he was born in 1815, “the year that the first steam-driven warship, the USS Fulton, was launched.”

Inventors like James Watt and Michael Faraday were set before him to admire, as soldiers in the war for progress. When he was two, construction began on the Erie Canal. When he was three, the steamship Savannah crossed the Atlantic in an incredible twenty-six days. When he was six, sound was first recorded. When he was eight, Charles Babbage began the first of his many attempts to build a machine that would add and subtract. When he was twelve, Josef Ressel invented the first ship’s propeller. When he was fourteen, the patent office issued papers for the first typewriter. It was only natural that Horace would grow to expect similar contributions from himself. (p. 59)

Not all of the scientists profiled sought to equal the achievements of their peers, and although this was part of Wells’s motivation, it was not his sole aim. More often than not, as Franklin and Sutherland share, these scientists were driven by curiosity and love of knowledge. They had a burning desire to understand the world around them and to see with their own eyes whether certain controversial claims or assumptions were true.

Consider the start of a young Peruvian scientist’s quest to discover the actual cause or causes of two comorbid conditions—fever and the growth of many warts on one’s face—conditions that were assumed to be caused by separate diseases.

According to the legend of Daniel Carrion, the medical student listened to [a] noted doctor [talk about the issue] in silence—but when the presentation was finished the young man was on his feet demanding evidence. It was a surprising ploy. Professors of that era were not accustomed to the questions of students.

The physician recovered his poise quickly, however, and answered that evidence was superfluous. After all, he, Dr. Izquierdo, a scientist of wide fame and unquestionable authority, had clearly stated that warts and fever were separate diseases. Did the student think he, who was not yet even a doctor, could state the fact more eloquently? Had the student’s pride gotten the better of his respect? The class laughed.

Carrion sat down, his face hot with embarrassment.

Later, alone in his room, Carrion decided that Dr. Izquierdo, having no evidence, was a fraud. Apparently [Izquierdo’s] rival, Dr. Salazar, was correct. Warts and fever must be a single disease. . . .

When a lecture was scheduled by Dr. Salazar, Carrion was in the front row. Again he listened respectfully but Dr. Salazar, like Dr. Izquierdo, offered no evidence. Carrion mortified his friends by repeating the earlier spectacle. His question was the same. The answer wasn’t different enough to matter, and the laughter was familiar, too. Some of it came from his friends. (pp. 122–23)

Faced with such answers, Carrion set out to find the cause for himself. And, as some of the other scientists surveyed in the book did for their own questions, Carrion decided that the way to solve the problem was to try it out for himself—to give himself the disease and then carefully record its effects.

As you might expect, If I Die in the Service of Science contains several wince-worthy moments. To satisfy his curiosity, one scientist stabbed his own penis—twice—in order to inject himself with the pox (p. 50). Another scientist, seeking to know what it felt like to eject from an airplane cockpit 36,000 feet in the air at 1,800 miles per hour, strapped himself to a rocket-propelled sled that sped him across the desert as fast as 632 miles per hour before stopping abruptly (p. 310).

Unfortunately, given the complex nature of the diseases and forces with which the scientists profiled worked, some of them came to wrong conclusions and some of their lives came to tragic ends. These instances are sad, particularly because the scientists involved showed admirable independence and courage in their pursuit of truth, and because their heroic efforts make our lives much easier and safer today.

Although scientists today continue to fight superstition and ignorance, If I Die in the Service of Science shows how remarkably far reason and knowledge have come in the past couple of centuries—in large part because of the work of the kind of men profiled in this book. Readers may find the book so inspiring as to warrant raising a glass in toast to these heroes. But if so, they should choose their poison wisely.

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