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'Electrified Sheep' And Other Odd Experiments

The history of science is not limited to scientists in white coats working quietly with beakers and burners. Sometimes, in the name of knowledge, things can get downright weird.

In his new book, "Electrified Sheep," Alex Boese explores the unexpected side of science, filled with bizarre experiments and intrepid scientists.

Certain experiments served a purpose, like the zapping of animals, which helped scientists learn to harness the power of electricity.

Other experiments seem spectacularly useless, like the professor in 1933 who had a black widow spider bite him, confirming what scientists already knew — black widow spider venom really hurts.

"When we think of science, often we think of it as being very rational," Boese tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, "(but) often scientists are blundering around in the dark ... So often, maybe out of desperation, they resort to doing these extreme things that really look kind of crazy."

It might have looked crazy, but there was a scientific reason Benjamin Franklin had his mouth pressed against a hen's beak.

In the 18th century, when scientists first began to understand the power of electricity, they had no way to measure electrical force. There were, after all, no hardware stores selling voltmeters. But there were birds.

"So what they did," Boese tells Raz, "is they would zap these poor birds and see what effect it had on the birds. They could say, well you know, this amount of power was enough to kill a sparrow but it wasn't enough to kill a hen or a turkey ... And Ben Franklin was involved in research like this."


Interview Highlights

On Benjamin Franklin's bird encounter

"He was zapping away hens and turkeys. And one poor hen, he got the idea, 'Well, I just zapped it and it's here unconscious on the floor, let me try to give it mouth-to-beak resuscitation and see if it comes back to life.' And sure enough it did. So Ben Franklin has a kind of odd honor of being the first person to use artificial respiration to revive an electric shock victim."

On Evan O'Neill Kane's self-appendectomy

"Evan O'Neill Kane was a very prominent surgeon. And he found that his own appendix was inflamed; it needed to be removed ... (he) suddenly sat up in the operating room and said, 'Hang on everybody — stop — I'm going to do it myself' ... And he injected some cocaine into the lining of his stomach muscles and began to slice away. And the experiment — well, the operation — was successful, except for at one point all his guts popped out of his stomach. But he said he just composed himself and stuffed them all back in."

On Allan Walker Blair's spider bite

"He was under no illusions that the black widow spider venom is the deadliest, or at least the most painful, venom that you can possibly be stung with ... He left the fangs of the spider in his hand for 10 seconds. Sure enough, you know, three days of nightmarish pain in a hospital. The doctor who attended him said he had never seen that level of pain manifested in any patient for any reason whatsoever ... You have to wonder what was the point of this, since doctors already knew what the black widow venom did to people."

On whether these experiments benefited science:

"Absolutely, because if you think about it, science at its core nature is somewhat about doing things that normal people would think are crazy. For instance, the first people back in the 15th century who started doing human anatomy and cutting up bodies, at the time people though this was absolutely, not only insane, but wicked and sacrilegious. And yet they kind of went ahead and did it anyway ... So there's this kind of tension in science that yes, you have to kind of be willing to do what others are not willing to do. And if you don't do that, then science can't advance."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Back in the 1920s, a researcher named Frederick Hoelzel wanted to figure out how quickly our bodies could ingest inert material, so he ate gravel, pole bearings and glass beads. To what end? It's still unclear. But the story is told in a new book on pioneering scientists who conducted experiments on themselves all in the name of science.

The book's called "Electrified Sheep," and its author is Alex Boese. And one of the stories he tells is about Benjamin Franklin, one of the greatest electrical scientists of his time. But did you know that Ben Franklin was the first known person to revive an electric shock victim using mouth-to-mouth or, rather, in that case, mouth-to-beak?

ALEX BOESE: There was no way for scientists to measure electrical force. They didn't have volt meters that you could buy today. So what they did instead is they would zap these poor birds and see what affect it had on the birds. And if they could say, well, this amount of power was enough to kill a sparrow, but it wasn't enough to kill a hen or a turkey or some larger bird, so it was a very primitive way of measuring electrical force.

And Ben Franklin was involved in research like this, and he was zapping away hens and turkeys. And one poor hen, he got the idea: Well, I just zapped it, and it's here unconscious on the floor. Let me try to give it mouth-to-beak resuscitation and see if it comes back to life. And sure enough, it did.

So Ben Franklin has the kind of odd honor of being the first person to use artificial respiration to revive an electric shock victim.

RAZ: As you get further into the book, you realize that what you're really writing about is a somewhat long tradition of scientists using themselves as subjects. You write about the case of Evan O'Neill Kane, right, and he actually...

BOESE: Yes.

RAZ: ...he removed his own appendix.

BOESE: Yes. This was shortly after the discovery of local anesthesia. And cocaine, of course, was the anesthetic first used for that purpose, and Evan O'Neill Kane was a very prominent surgeon and he found that his own appendix was inflamed. It needed to be removed. Initially, his brother, who was a surgeon, was going to perform the operation.

But Evan O'Neill Kane suddenly sat up in the operating room and said: Hang on, everybody. Stop. I'm going to do it myself. And since he was the chief surgeon in the hospital, nobody could contradict him. So it caused absolute chaos.

RAZ: This is in 1921.

BOESE: 1921, yes, exactly. But sure enough, all the nurses and the orderlies obeyed his orders, and he injected some cocaine into the lining of his stomach muscles and began to slice away. And the experiment - well, the operation was successful, except for at one point all his guts popped out of his stomach. But he said he just composed himself and stuffed them all back in and continued the operation. And 14 days later, he was back at work operating on other people.

RAZ: What was the point of him doing that?

BOESE: There is no good answer to what's the point. I think he did it because he just wanted to see if it could be done, and he was curious about the effects of local anesthesia on himself. But really, there's no practical knowledge that came out of this. Most surgeons today have never even heard of it.

RAZ: You also write about a professor at the University of Alabama who deliberately had himself stung by a black widow spider in 1933 to find out what would happen to him.

BOESE: Yes. And the very strange thing about this is that he knew exactly what was going to happen. He was under no illusions that the black widow spider venom is the deadliest, or at least the most painful venom that you can possibly be stung with. Ten years before, another researcher that he was aware of had done this exact same experiment and had spent two or three days in the hospital.

So the guy, Allan Walker Blair, he actually upped the dose. He wanted to take an even larger dose of the venom. He left the fangs of the spider in his hand for 10 seconds. Sure enough, you know, three days of nightmarish pain in a hospital, the doctor who attended him said he had never seen that level of pain manifested in any patient for any reason whatsoever.

And, again, you have to wonder what was the point of this since doctors already knew what the black widow venom did to people.

RAZ: Do you think there's some kind of connection between being slightly unhinged and being a good scientist?

BOESE: When we think of science, often, we think of it as being very rational. But I think science actually is a very messy process. And often, scientists are blundering around in the dark, and they don't know exactly what to do to find the answers they want. So often, maybe out of desperation, they resort to doing these extreme things that really look kind of crazy.

Sometimes, you know, in hindsight, it is absolutely crazy. But a very few times, it will yield some good results.

RAZ: Do you think that the history of science and what we know today has benefited from these somewhat mad scientists that you write about?

BOESE: If you think about it, science, at its core nature, is somewhat about doing things that normal people would think are crazy. For instance, the first people back in the 15th century who started doing human anatomy and cutting up bodies, at the time, people thought this was absolutely, not only insane but wicked and sacrilegious, and yet, they kind of went ahead and did it anyway.

They were willing to do what other people thought were crazy. So there's this kind of tension in science that, yes, you have to kind of be willing to do what others are not willing to do. And if you don't do that, then science can't advance.

RAZ: That's Alex Boese. He's the author of the new book "Electrified Sheep" about scientific experiments, many of which went awry. He joined us from KPBS in San Diego. Alex, thank you so much.

BOESE: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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