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They Risked Death for Others

A part of science which people often fail to realize, is the courage of those scientists who willingly risk their own lives for the benefit of mankind.

There was an example of such courage in our country towards the end of last century. At that time cholera was a much feared disease, many deaths, and it was not known how the spread of the disease could be prevented.

During the 1890s a young doctor named Daniil Zabolotny was carrying out research with cholera germs at the University of Kiev. Zabolotny was trying to develop a vaccine that could be used to protect people from attack by the disease. But making a vaccine is one thing – proving that it will save human life is quite a different matter. Experiments on animals are useless to prove this; it must be used on a human being.

Trying it on themselves

Daniil Zabolotny’s vaccine, made from the actual germs which caused cholera, was an oral vaccine, that is, it had to be taken by swallowing. Faced with the problem of proving its value, the young doctor and one of his assistants – his name was I.G. Savchenko – decided they must test it upon themselves. First they swallowed the new vaccine. Then, the two men injected themselves with cholera germs.

Imagine their feelings, as they waited for the results. No one had ever taken an oral vaccine before. The two men knew well what happened to people who became infected with cholera – great pain in the stomach with constant vomiting, until the patient became too weak to live. If the vaccine was a failure, that was what would happen to them.

Hours passed, and no sign of the disease developed. The vaccine was a success, proved so by the courage of the men who had developed it. This brave experiment is still hailed today as a great event, for it was the first time in history that men had proved that protection from disease could be gained by swallowing a weak dose of the germs which caused it.

The German heart specialist W. Forssmann gave another example of risking his life for the sake of science. He inserted a thin flexible tube into a vein of his arm, and pushed it up so that it followed the vein into his heart.

Because of Forssmann’s daring, a new method of studying the human heart was developed. Before that time no one would have thought such a thing possible. Forssmann proved that it did not result in death, as was feared – but think of the courage he needed to make the experiment!

Any scientist can experiment with equipment. But to experiment upon oneself shows faith in himself and his work, great courage and true devotion to science.


Science against Pain

Many doctors and scientists in various countries in the past tried to discover ways and means of killing pain. Anaesthesia, which is an ordinary thing now, is the result of the long and hard work of many. It is difficult to say now who was the first, but some of the names must not be forgotten.

In 1776 Joseph Priestley, a prominent English chemist, found a gas which is now called “laughing-gas” because it makes people feel a little drunk after inhaling it. For about thirty years no one was seriously interested in it, but in 1800 Humphry Davy, the famous English chemist, noticed its effects. He also said that it would probably be useful in operations because it could take away pain.

About 1824 an English doctor called Hickman read Davy’s books and tried laughing-gas on dogs and other animals. He got some good results, but still no interest was shown. Hickman died young, before he could make people believe in laughing-gas as an anaesthetic.

Laughing-gas became known in America, where young men and women went to parties to try it. Most of them spent their time laughing, but one man at a party, Horace Wells, who was a dentist, noticed that people did not seem to feel pain when they were under the effects of this gas. He decided to try an experiment on himself. He asked a friend to help him.

Wells inhaled some of the gas, and his friend pulled out one of Well’s teeth. Wells felt no pain at all. He had lost a perfectly good tooth, but he was delighted. Teeth could now be pulled out without pain.

In 1845 Wells showed this way of pulling teeth to some teachers and students, but he did not know enough about laughing-gas, and he gave too little. The man whose tooth was pulled cried out with pain. Wells tried again but this time he gave too much of the gas, and the man died.

Although tragic mistakes like this were made, doctors had now begun to think that the pain of an operation was unnecessary. Other gases were tried. In these experiments the name of James Simpson, a young Scottish doctor, became known. He was one of the youngest professors of the University of Edinburgh.

Simpson was looking for some drug which would put patients to sleep for a long enough time to operate on them painlessly. Not having found any, he was experimenting with hypnotism, when one day he heard about an operation in London during which Robert Liston, a famous surgeon of that time, cut off a leg in less than a minute. There was not a sound from the patient and when he came to himself he asked, “When are you going to begin?”

Liston had used ether to put the man to sleep.

Simpson hurried to London and brought some ether back to Edinburgh. There he tried it on himself. He found that it put you to sleep all right, and it did not seem to have any bad effect. But the trouble was that it had such a low boiling-point that it turned into vapour too easily. An operating theatre could easily be filled with ether, to the danger of doctors, and nurses and anyone else present.

Not only that; ether is highly inflammable and this was long before the invention of electric light. A light such as gas or a candle could cause an explosion.

Simpson decided to try to find a better anaesthetic. Together with two of his friends he went to work. They began to experiment with mixtures of ether and other chemicals and they tried to find something just as effective but with a much higher boiling-point. They sat night after night in Simpson’s sitting-room, and tried one gas after another. After about a year’s work of this kind, the three men tried a new anaesthetic which they called “chloroform”. Chloroform was not as volatile as ether and, as they expected, quite as effective as ether itself in putting people to sleep.

One day Simpson brought a small bottle with some clear liquid in it into the room where his wife and her sisters were sitting, and as they looked at him he said, “This will turn the world upside down”.

“What is it?” his wife asked.

Instead of answering, he picked up a glass, poured some of the liquid into it, and inhaled it. After several deep breaths they saw him fall down on the floor unconscious.

When he came to himself, he told the two women triumphantly, “This is my miracle – the drug I have been looking for years. I believe that in a few years, or even months, we shall see every operation in the country performed under its influence.”

Simpson was very pleased with the effects of chloroform, used it himself, and showed its results to others. He soon did three big operations with it in front of doctors and students.

Soon Simpson’s drug spread in Scotland, then in England, Europe and the world. In some years the use of anaesthetics became general. Today hospital patients have the benefit of other anaesthetics developed by other scientists, but chloroform, the first really satisfactory one, is still in use.


6. Questions for Discussion:

Why do scientists sometimes find it necessary to risk their lives during their research work?

Explain why cholera caused so many deaths in the past.

What is the most difficult thing in developing a new vaccine?

Say a few words about what each of the men did to discover means of killing pain.

Why was pure ether unsatisfactory as an anaesthetic?

Whose contribution to the research for painless operations do you think was the greatest? Why?

Speak on a serious problem of how far a modern scientist can go in experimenting upon himself for the sake of science. Can such risks be justified? What do you think?

Ponder on why mankind owes an everlasting debt to all pioneers in medical science.


7. Make sure you know the vocabulary: to thrive on, to isolate the hormone insulin, pancreas, the Islets of Langerhans, enzymes, digesting proteins, efficient viral vaccines, tissue culture, to be cultivated, to evolve methods, to be attenuated, virulent form, disturbing proclivity of the virus, a pandemic, medicosurgical responsibilities, remorselessly, the suturing of blood vessels, axial, to line up the protons, hydrogen atoms, align, give an image of any plane, iodine, blood supply, to pump into, coronary thrombosis, inflamed tissues, nerve tracts, a proton beam, to rotate from time to time, synchrocyclotron, polymerization, assortment, molten substances, a glass rod, strand, continuous fiber, lustrous, to spin into a fiber, abrasion, rot, mildew, oddity, to inaugurate, to break down into fragments, to produce in the usual fashion, a carbon copy, counterfeit, in essence, ewe’s udder, to implant.


  1. Read and retell the following texts:

1912. Vitamins

In the field of nutrition the outstanding advance of the 20th century was the discovery and the appreciation of the importance to health of the ‘‘accessory food factors”, or vitamins. Various workers had shown that animals did not thrive on a synthetic diet containing all the correct amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrate; they even suggested that there must be some unknown ingredients in natural food that were essential for growth and the maintenance of health. But little progress was made in this field until the classical experiments of the English biologist F. Jowland Hopkins were published in 1912. The name “vitamine” was suggested for these substances by the biochemist Casimir Funk.



Date: 2015-01-12; view: 960

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