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. . . .

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