The Monthly Scientist: Mr November

The Monthly Scientist

Imagine you’re going to have to have surgery in 1800, say for example your leg has a nasty wound and the only way forward is to amputate. Now surgery back then could have easily meant the end of your life. Not necessarily through the surgery itself but it would have been more than likely you would have developed an infection. Nasty ones at that, all that started to change with this months scientist:

Dr Joseph Lister


Born: 5, April 1827

Died: 10, February 1912

Noted for: Pioneering antiseptic techniques in surgery

Why scientist of the month?

I’ll be honest, I’m really glad that medicine has come on as much as it has. One of the most important advances in medicine has been the antiseptic technique. This basically means that microbes that cause infections are tried to be kept to an absolute minimum. This is partly down to Lister, he was a surgeon that believed (correctly) microbes carried in the air that caused diseases to be spread in wards. People who had been operated on were especially vulnerable as their bodies were weak and their skin had been cut open so that germs could get into the body with more ease.

So he came up with a method to try and combat this. Everything had to be thoroughly cleaned in his surgeries including the wound itself. Then he went further by devising a machine that pumped out a fine mist of carbolic acid into the air around an operation. Using this method the number of patients that died in his surgeries greatly reduced. Like going from a 45% death rate to 15%! This gradually became common practice and then further advancements were made in the antiseptic technique to get us where we are today.

So I personally would like to thank Joseph Lister for making surgery far safer than in the 1800s!

ThatBiologist Everywhere!




A Short History Of Poison Hemlock

The poisons collection

As a part of a recent project for university, I along with a group of my peers were looking into poisonous plants. I found the topic both fascinating and frightening however I only had a limited word count and wanted to pay a bit more attention to my favourite poisonous plant; Hemlock.

In 339BC the greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced death. His crime was of corrupting the yo2uth of Athens. His avid student Plato witnessed his death. The story goes as follows: Socrates was brought a drink. He drank the drink and then walked around his cell until his legs felt heavy, then he lay down. A guard asked whether he could feel his feet and legs, he replied that he could not. A short while later Socrates became silent and he died. Within the drink was the infamous poison from the poison Hemlock plant.

From the family Apiaceae, Conuium maculatum is a highly poisonous herbaceous flowering plant. The plant is a perennial (meaning to live for more than two years unlike and annual that lives for 1 or biennials that live for 2) and native to Europe. It grows within fields and pastures, preferring wet soils and coastal areas. It is easily confused with parley due to the lacy look of the plant.

The plant has five alkaloids making it incredibly deadly. The poison has bee1n said to work from the outside in. A complete mad man by the name of John Harley stated that “There was a distinct impairment of motor power.” He was a British doctor and took small amount of the plant experimentally and published his findings in 1869. It is now known that the poison has paralysing effects. Starting off by the numbing of the limbs and eventually paralysing the lungs.

I think the most horrifying thing about this plant is that it is said to have no effect on the brain. This meaning that you have to endure this horrible process entirely conscious.

Most deaths from the plant are due to misidentification. Most recently a lady from Washington state died in 2010 after eating a salad containing poison Hemlock. Between 1972 and 1990 there were 17 cases of hemlock poisoning. Although this was due to wild birds eating hemlock and being unaffected by it. Then the birds were eaten and due to the toxins remaining active one person died from respiratory failure and three died from kidney failure.

This all being said the key difference and thing to look for when trying to avoid the tragic deaths of those previously mentioned would be to look at the stems of the plant. Poison Hemlock stems are hollow and speckled with purple blotches. The leaves when crushed have an odour described as smelling of parsnips or of mice and on that note I’ll leave you.

See you next week!

If you are interested in the wonderful world of poisonous and dangerous plants I highly recommend Amy Stewarts book “Wicked Plants”. It is such a readable and entertaining book.