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Guinea Pig Scientists: Bold Self-Experimenters in Science and Medicine
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Guinea Pig Scientists: Bold Self-Experimenters in Science and Medicine

by Mel Boring, Leslie Dendy, C. B. Mordan (Illustrator)

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It was August 27, 1885. In a hospital in Lima, Peru, a student named Daniel Carrión was preparing to infect himself with a dreaded disease . . . He had a small, sharp lancet ready . . . Carrión's friends and teacher from the medical school thought it was a bad idea. They knew Carrión was eager to learn more about this mysterious disease.


It was August 27, 1885. In a hospital in Lima, Peru, a student named Daniel Carrión was preparing to infect himself with a dreaded disease . . . He had a small, sharp lancet ready . . . Carrión's friends and teacher from the medical school thought it was a bad idea. They knew Carrión was eager to learn more about this mysterious disease.
But were the risks worth it?

Science and medicine from the inside out-ten engrossing stories of self-experimentation

Who are these "guinea pig scientists"? Searching for clues to some of science's and medicine's bigger (and sometimes stranger) questions, they are all the men and women who devoted their lives to help find the answers. Spanning from the 1770s to the present—and uncovering the science behind digestion, the spread of yellow fever, the development of the first heart catheter, and more—their ten stories are at once scientifically detailed and fascinatingly personal.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“* An easy and interesting read. . . . These biographies are provocative with underpinnings of intrigue for discovering what is yet unknown.” —School Library Journal, starred review

“* Ten enthralling case studies of scientists from the past several centuries who became their own test subjects--with occasionally fatal results. . . . Riveting reading.” —Booklist, starred review

“* An easy and interesting read. . . . These biographies are provocative with underpinnings of intrigue for discovering what is yet unknown.” —School Library Journal, starred review

Children's Literature
For hundreds of years, scientists have experimented on themselves, curious about how the human body works and what it can stand. The ten biographies in this intriguing collection portray men and women who swallowed inedible substances, exposed themselves to diseases, subjected themselves to intense heat and pressure, gas, radiation, and isolation, and injected probes into their hearts. The scientists described include Lazzaro Spallanzani, William Morton and Horace Wells, Marie and Pierre Curie, John Scott Haldane and Jack Haldane, John Paul Stapp, and Stefania Follini and others, working from the 1700s to nearly the present. Each chapter begins with a black-and-white portrait of the scientist(s) and ends with a section entitled "Now We Know." This highlights current understandings in the field of the self-experimenter, whether it be how the digestive system works, how much pressure the human body can stand, what happens to biological clocks when you are without outside time clues, or how diseases like yellow fever are transmitted and treated. Sidebars explain unfamiliar vocabulary and introduce others who worked in the field. The end matter includes an extensive bibliography for each subject, quotation sources, acknowledgements, credits for the black-and-white photographs that also illustrate each chapter, and a substantial index. In spite of the intriguing subject matter and proliferation of gory detail, the appearance of this book—with its black-and-white format, small type, and considerable heft—is serious. It may require some selling on the part of adults. This would be excellent supplementary reading for high school biology classes. 2005, Henry Holt and Company, Ages 12up.
—Kathleen Isaacs
School Library Journal
Gr 5 Up-Scientifically speaking, a "guinea pig" is a person who volunteers to serve as a subject in a scientific study. An easy and interesting read, this book describes 18th-century Italian scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani and his research on himself to explore digestion by swallowing food encapsulated in wooden tubes or cloth satchels and then analyzing the remains of the samples upon their exit from the intestinal tract. Gross enough to capture readers' attention, and startling enough to hold onto it, Spallanzani's story ends with a description of his discoveries and how many of his observations are still valid. Other topics describe guinea-pig scientists who tested internal body temperature in extreme heat and cold conditions, inhaled various gasses to discover one suitable for anesthetic uses (today's laughing gas), and seven more captivating narratives. Each chapter concludes with a list of facts derived from the work of these scientists, what they proposed and discovered, and what we now know about these topics. Black-and-white sketches and old photographs give these unbelievable stories a sense of realism. The book does not encourage young scientists to use themselves as guinea pigs, but these biographies are provocative with underpinnings of intrigue for discovering what is yet unknown.-Jodi Kearns, University of Akron, OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This account of scientists who have used their own bodies and minds as subjects of experimentation forms a satisfyingly gruesome exploration of scientific dedication. George Fordyce explored the limits of the human ability to endure extreme heat and helped to explain why "it's not the heat; it's the humidity"; Daniel Carri-n's self-infection with the deadly verruga peruana resulted in his death and the renaming of the disease in his honor; Marie Curie's experimentation with radium killed her but led to radiation therapy. Although these men and women, and several others introduced in this fascinating tome, were often viewed as crackpots, the text makes clear that it was their willingness to suffer that has led to many significant medical advances. The text is often sprightly and delivers just the right factoids to keep up flagging interest. Mordan's clean inked portraits and details supplement archival illustrations; sidebars and chapter-ending "Now We Know" segments extend the information presented in the narrative. An introduction warns readers not to try these experiments on themselves; an author's note informs readers of their methodology and approach to source material. Solid and fascinating. (Nonfiction. 10+)

Product Details

Square Fish
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
7.90(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
10 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

From CHAPTER TWO: Swallowing Bags, Bones, and Tubes

Italy, 1770s

Everyone has to eat. And the food must be digested somehow in the rumbling, squeezing stomach and intestines before the body can use it. What really happens in there? Over two hundred years ago a famous Italian scientist named Lazzaro Spallanzani tried to find out. He had no X-rays or cameras with fiber-optic tubes to look inside a person's digestive tract, as we do now, but he had his own bold ideas. He could use materials as simple as linen and wood to solve the riddles of digestion. Would he find evidence of grinding, rotting, or chemical changes no one had discovered before?

When young Lazarro was growing up in Scandiano, Italy, he knew nothing of science. At fifteen he went away to a college run by the Jesuit religious order. He studied languages, philosophy, speaking, and writing, and impressed his teachers so much that they asked him to join their order. But his father, a lawyer, wanted him to study law.

So Lazarro went to the University of Bologna. Studying law trained him to think logically, but he didn't like it. Fortunately, one of his cousins, Laura Bassi, was a professor there. She encouraged him to take a wider variety of courses, including chemistry, physics, natural history (nature studies), and math. He was impressed with the power of mathematics, but it was the sciences that awakened his passion. Professor Bassi and another teacher persuaded Lazarro's father to let him drop law. Thus began Lazarro Spallanzani's amazing career in science.

By the time Spallanzani took up his digestion experiments in about 1776, he was a professor of natural history at the university in Pavia, Italy. He was already famous for his extraordinary experiments on other subjects. For example, he had aimed sunbeams at salamanders in a dark room so that he could watch their blood flow under a microscope. He had boldly climbed the Italian mountains to study their gushing spring water. To test the story that there was a giant whirlpool in the middle of Lake Ventasso in the Apennines mountain range, he floated out to the spot on a raft made of tree stumps. (Conclusion: no whirlpool.)

Now about forty-seven years old, Spallanzani was still full of energy, and his brain continued to overflow with questions. How do volcanoes erupt? Are sperm needed to make babies? How do deep-sea animals glow in the dark? How do birds migrate? And so on.

Spallanzani was fascinated by digestion. Very little was known about it then. Some scientists thought stomachs and intestines were like machines, grinding up food into little bits. Others thought there was a sort of bubbly fermentation occurring, like grape juice turning to wine. Another suggestion was that the food in the digestive system was simply rotting.

Only a few scientists had actually done experiments on digestion. In the 1600s, another Italian named Francesco Redi had forced birds to swallow glass balls to test the grinding-machine idea. The glass did indeed get crumbled in the birds' digestive organs. Then, in the 1700s, a Frenchman named Rene de Reaumur studied the chemistry of digestion. He forced some birds to swallow and regurgitate little metal tubes stuffed with sponges and then squeezed their stomach juice out of the sponges for chemical experiments.

Spallanzani used these ideas but went much further. He began with chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, crows, pigeons, and doves. Then he moved on to frogs, newts, snakes, fish, sheep, oxen, horses, owls, eagles, cats, and dogs.

Why so many? He knew these animals have wildly different diets and eating "equipment." Chickens have no teeth but do have a very tough, muscular organ called a gizzard, usually full of stones they have swallowed. Cats slash their meat with razor-sharp teeth, while horses use huge, flat molars to mash food and snakes swallow their mouse meals whole. Surely there would be differences in digestion, too. And indeed there were. For example, Spallanzani showed that chickens and turkeys were great grinders. A chicken's gizzard could turn solid glass balls into "sand" in a few hours, and a turkey's gizzard could break metal into bits.

Today, some of Spallanzani's animal experiments sound cruel. When he pushed hard objects, such as tin tubes stuffed with food, down the animals' throats, they probably suffered. Some of them even fought back. In his extremely detailed report on the digestion experiments, Spallanzani noted that the snakes became "highly exasperated." One snake, fortunately a nonpoisonous specimen, bit him. Falcons and eagles attempted to attack him. When dogs tried to bite, he decided to hide their food tubes in pieces of meat and throw those on the floor.

We should remember, however, that in the 1700s European scientists generally did not believe that animals could think or feel pain. Ordinary people killed many animals for food, hunted them for sport, and worked them hard on farms without much thought about the animals' feelings. Spallanzani's use of animals for science would not have raised any eyebrows in his own time.

Spallanazani finished his animal experiments. Then, "not neglecting Man, the noblest and most interesting of all," he started in on his own stomach. He knew that humans might feel discomfort from such experiments, even if he did not realize other animals did, too. He decided that he could not ask another person to submit to his tests--he had to try them on himself.

He started with a soft experiment. One morning he chewed a bite of bread, spit it out, and weighed it. He stuffed the chewed bread into a small bag made of linen. The bag would help him track the location of the bread, while letting digestive juices soak into the food. He sewed the opening shut with thread. Then he swallowed the bag.

Spallanzani wasn't too worried. He knew that people sometimes swallow cherry stones and plum pits by accident, and they travel all the way through the digestive tract and come out in the feces without doing any harm. Twenty-three hours after Spallanzani swallowed the bread bag, it came out. He was fine. The bag and thread were intact, but the bread was completely gone.

"The fortunate result of this experiment gave me great encouragement to undertake others," said Spallanzani. So he forged ahead with a carefully planned series of experiments on himself, including dozens of tests, getting more and more daring.

He swallowed bread again inside bags made of two or three layers of cloth to slow down the digestion. The triple-layer bag had a dry speck of bread left in it. Spallanzani tasted it and discovered that it had lost all its flavor.

Was the food getting crushed like the glass in a chicken's gizzard? The human stomach and intestines are certainly muscular. To find out if squeezing was essential for digestion, Spallanzani decided to swallow food inside hard capsules. He carved wood into tubes about the size of a modern multivitamin pill, with holes in the sides to let the digestive juices in. If food still got digested inside such a tube, then digestive juices soaking into the food were more important than the mashing.

Tubes were scarier than bags. A tube might get stuck in his stomach, or it might tear his organs if he vomited it up. Spallanzani was definitely worried, since he often got indigestion after normal meals.

Nevertheless, he filled a wooden tube with chewed veal, put the tube in a linen bag, and swallowed everything. Then he waited. No problem! The food package "exited happily at the end of 22 hours," he reported. Both bag and tube came out intact but empty. His digestive juices seemed to be working even without any squeezing.

Spallanzani sent more wooden tubes on the same journey down the esophagus. To study the effect of chewing he put a chewed piece of pigeon heart in one tub and an unchewed piece in another tube, then swallowed both. Much more of the chewed heart had disappeared when the tubes came out the next day. He repeated these experiments with mutton, veal, and bread and got the same results. Chewed food was digested more quickly, probably because the chewed bits got more thoroughly exposed to his digestive juices.

Spallanzani carved some tubes especially thin, so that they could easily be crushed with the press of a finger. These tubes always came out of his body unbroken. His digestive organs must be squeezing very gently indeed.

To test this idea further, Spallanzani gulped down four firm grapes without chewing. They all came out after a day, still whole. Then he swallowed softer grapes and both firm and soft cherries, and most of them also came out whole. The human digestive system was clearly not a grinding machine.

Copyright © 2005 Leslie Dendy and Mel Boring
This text is from an uncorrected proof.

Meet the Author

Leslie Dendy has been teaching biology and chemistry for nearly thirty years. She is the author of Tracks, Scats, and Signs and lives with her husband in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Mel Boring is the author of a number of nonfiction picture books, as well as a novel. He lives in Rockford, Iowa, with his family.

C. B. Mordan is the illustrator of several books for young readers, including Lost: A Story in String. He lives near Kansas City, Missouri.

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