68 thoughts on “Science History Bleg”

  1. Many early aviation pioneers died before the Wright Brothers figured out how to safely fly an airplane. I don’t know names, but it probably isn’t hard to find them.

  2. Edward Wilson gave his life doing biological research in Antarctica


    [[[Edward Adrian Wilson (1872-1912) is one of the most famous native sons of Cheltenham. He was an influential figure of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, being chiefly remembered today as the artistic scientist who died with Captain Scott.]]]

  3. Wolf V. Vishniac also died while doing research as a microbiologist in Antarctica. He was a researcher for the Viking missions.


    [[[Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester, and attendee of the EASTEX meetings in 1958, who received a NASA grant for $4,485 to develop a prototype system for detecting life on other planets. His “Wolf Trap” was designed to introduce a nutrient broth into a test chamber containing a sample of soil or dust. ]]]

    1. I’m sorry, but Slotin was an idiot who should barely have been allowed access to a screwdriver, much less fissionable material. Daghlian was almost as hapless, except without the screwdriver.

  4. Other Volcanic eruptions have also killed a number of vulcanologists, including 6 scientists and 3 assistants at Puerto Galeras.


    [[[However, the recent tragedies at Unzen (Japan, 1991), Galeras (Columbia, 1993), and most recently, Mayon (Philippines, 1993), bring into sharp focus the hazardous and unpredictable nature of active volcanos. ]]]

  5. Joseph William Kittinger II He is most famous for his participation in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior, holding the records for having the highest, fastest and longest skydive, from a height greater than 31 km

  6. The Piccards (Auguste, Bertrand, Jean Felix, Jeannette Don and Jacques) took many risks, first in developing high altitude balloons and than Bathyscaphes and Mesoscaphes.

    The fictional Capt. Picard from Star Trek was named in their honor, since the family boldly went where no one has gone before, and in the case of Jacques Piccard, no one has been since as no one has matched the voyage of Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in the Trieste to the Challenger Deep.

  7. Dr. Barry Marshall drank a vial of Helicobacter pylori to prove it caused stomach ulsers. He developed ulsers as a result. His findings revolutionized the treatment of ulsers and improved the lives of millions of people. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2005.

    1. He developed gastritis, but I believe it cleared up with antibiotics (and he made sure the bacteria were susceptible to antibiotics before inoculating himself) before it progressed to the stage of ulcers.

      He had a coworker who also was infected, but it took him three years to get over it.

  8. Dr. Barry Marshall won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005 for showing the relationship between bacterial infection and peptic ulcers. He infected himself with the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori to prove the relationship, and made himself very ill in the process, though not sure if the risk rose to the level of life-threatening.

  9. Finally, the Manhattan project was full of scientists taking risks…

    So Rand, is that enough or do you need more examples?

      1. I was thinking of the “the pile” they did under the University of Chicago stadium among others, since they were pushing into the unknown while rushing at the same time.

  10. Many (many) years ago I read Asimov’s history of the discovery of the elements. The discover of Fluorine was killed in an unusual way. A technique used at the time was to taste the compounds discovered. He did it once with HF … but survived! After he recovered, it was the second taste that killed him.


    1. A number of chemists died attempting to isolate fluorine before Moissan succeeded in electrolyzing HF (the only successful process). They are known as the Fluorine Martyrs. Moissan himself died of appendicitis.

  11. Admiral Richard Byrd lived on the edge constantly. I’m most familiar with his 1934 stay alone for an Antarctic winter at a buried weather station near the south pole. He nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning froma leaking stove flu, but didn’t radio for help because of the risk to a rescue team. His book Alone<iIsrael's the story, and is a great read.

  12. BTW, returning to Antarctica, the Heroic Age of Antarctica was valled that because the of shear number of researchers risking their lives to study the continent. Unfortunately the risks they took from 1900 to the 1920’s are overshadowed by the polar race between Amundsen and Scott.

    If you go into the late 19th and early 20th Century you see a similar era for polar exploration beyond the Peary/Cook race to the pole. The Greeley Expedition especially comes to mind.

    And while talking about polar expeditions lets not forget Vitus Jonassen Bering, navigator and naturalist (he described many species of plants and animals) who died on the island named for him in pursuit of knowledge.

    1. “…lets not forget Vitus Jonassen Bering, navigator and naturalist (he described many species of plants and animals)…”

      He also discovered an Alaskan tribe of native heterosexuals, the Bering Straights.

  13. Col. John Stapp, who did deceleration tests for the USAF in the late 1940s. Survived 45+ g’s deceleration. Also did wind blast test at 570 mph (kt?).

    Any of the 59 military guys who died perfecting air to air refueling in the late 1950s.

    Yeager, Crossfield, et all at Edwards and their contemporaries at Pax River. Cheers –

    1. Col Stapp is an excellent example and is a personal hero of mine. Before he proved otherwise, common knowledge was that you couldn’t survive more than a 10G deceleration. As a result, designing aircraft for improved safety wasn’t considered worthwhile. His experiments proved you could survive much more intense deceleration. He went on to pioneer advances in automotive safety when he realized that as many Air Force flight crew members were killed in car wrecks than plane crashes. Who knows how many thousands of lives have been saved as a result of Col Stapp’s experiments. Joe Kittinger considered Stapp the bravest man alive and that’s coming from a very brave man himself.

      1. I once heard Col. Stapp speak at a crashworthiness conference in Dearborn, MI, in which he suggested instrumenting (American) football players to study the effects of rapid decelerations. Interesting guy.

        1. I’ve read that some of the new helmets are wired to help determine if a player suffered a concussion. Hell of a man, IMO. Smart and incredibly brave.

      2. I was fortunate enough to meet him several times while he was in his 80’s and working on the Task Force for the Southwest Regional Spaceport. He was still sharp to the end and always looking to the future. He was definitely one of the key folks that made Spaceport America possible.

    2. Col. Stapp is definitely one of the most underrated scientists in history. He played an enormous role in making human space travel possible, or even thinkable.

      1. The man must’ve sported a big pair. Anyone who’d do this, not once but 29 times in the name of medical science is as brave as anyone can possibly be. After the first one, you know what to be afraid of (learned as a paratrooper).

        That he died peacefully in his sleep at over 80 years old just makes him all the more remarkable. Superman wears John Stapp pajamas to bed.

        1. I first learned about Stapp from a small paperback book entitled “Man In Space” by Marvin L. Stone. It was part of a series of books published by Science Service that I subscribed to when I was a kid in the 60s. This book was copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, and 1964. (I’m looking at it right now.) Gemini and Apollo were still in the future.

          I didn’t learn about him in school; it was from outside reading I did on my own.

  14. Otto Lillienthal: Killed in a glider accident in 1896.

    1LT Thomas Selfridge: First person killed in a heavier than air accident in 1908. Orville Wright never fully recovered from the injuries he received in that accident.

  15. A fair number of early medical researchers tested vaccines by taking the vaccine, and then injecting disease germs. some of them died.

  16. Thomas Matula beat me to it with the bathysphere reference. Only other one I’ve thought of that hasn’t already been mentioned here is Wiley Post, who I believe developed the pressure suit in the 1930s.

    1. Jimmy Doolittle and Edwin Aldrin (Buzz Aldrin’s father) should also be added to the list for the research they did on instrument flying in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

      And Edwin Aldrin brings to mind Robert Goddard and his early rocket experiments.

  17. Lots of scientists were injured by their experiments literally blowing up in their face. Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerin when a test tube of nitric acid, sulfric acid, and gelatin exploded and embedded glass into his face. Robert Bunsen lost sight in one eye when cacodyl cyanide blew up as it came in contact with air. And Sir Humphrey Davy was the bad boy of science with his numerous explosions and poisonings.

  18. The OP was phrased as “the pursuit of knowledge”, not the pursuit of science or necessarily scientific knowledge, which leaves the door wide open to every intrepid explorer, military recon scout, test pilot, and Og who figured out the best way to bring down a woolly mammoth.

    So for explorers, how about Marco Polo, Columbus, da Gama, Magellan, Cook, Cabot, Hudson, Drake, Stanley, Amundsen, Lewis and Clark, Burke and Wills, Gagarin and Glenn, Armstrong and Aldrin.

    1. Don’t forget the Franklin expedition – all perished during the attempt to explore the NorthWest Passage. Early food canning techniques may have caused lead poisoning.

    1. Igor Sikorski had three careers in aviation. While still in Czarist Russia, he made the first large multi-engined airplanes and taught himself to fly them. After fleeing Russia, his company built large flying boats for the airlines. He had to teach himself to fly those first helicopters, too.

  19. IIRC, Walter Reed exposed himself to bites by infected Anopheles mosquitoes to prove that they were the vector for Yellow Fever.

  20. Archimedes, history’s greatest defense contractor, risked and lost his life by not responding to a Roman soldier after the Romans took Syracuse. The problem he was working on was too consuming.

    Yeah, I know, it’s a stretch.

  21. Along the lines of things that may be apocrypha, I vaguely recall someone being burned (or persecuted) as a witch for discovering how to cryptanalyze polyalphabetic ciphers. Also the Pythagorean (I don’t if he had a name that was recorded) that proved that the square root of 2 was irrational while on a ship ride was thrown overboard by fellow Pythagoreans because that truth was so jarring to them.

  22. How about Giordano Bruno? It’s a bit of a stretch, but by the time I got here most of the good ones were taken.

    His cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model in proposing that the Sun was essentially a star, and moreover, that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings.

  23. Michael Mann and Phil Jones, fearlessly opening the frontiers of climate science in the face of near-certain death at the hands of rabid Republicans, Tea Partiers, oil magnates, and other such hateful, mean-spirited destroyers of Mother Earth…

  24. Rand,

    Very interesting question, and some excellent answers by many others.

    I must assume you that want more modern “risk takers” as opposed to the risk takers from long ago, such Columbus, Lewis and Clark.

    But just in case, some of the more ancient explorers who died include:

    * Henry Hudson (first European to discover Hudson river, killed by mutineers)

    * Sir Francis Drake (died of Dysentary near Panama)

    * Willem Barents (died of Scurvy, in the Barents Sea)

    * Ferdinand Magellan (named the Pacific ocean, died in the Phillipines in a battle with natives, 1521)

    * Juan Ponce de Leon (died in Florida, led first European expedition to Florida and named it)

    * James Cook (first European to discover Australia, killed in Hawaii, 1779)

    * David Livingstone (died in Zambia, dysentery and Pneumonia, 1873)

    * Roald Amundsen (first to South Pole, and first thru northwest passage, later dies attempting to rescue others returning from North Pole)

    * Robert Falcon Scott (led second expedition to reach south pole, dies on the trip back)

    – C

  25. Otto Lillienthal (sp?), builder and flyer of gliders in the late 19th century, inspiration to the Wright brothers, who supposedly said as he was dying of fatal injuries after a flight, “Sacrifices must be made.”

  26. Roald Amundsen, RF Scott, Ernest Shackleton (see ad); Sir Edmond Hillary; Lewis & Clark; The Wright Brothers; Young (“If you’re not a little bit nervous, you don’t understand the problem”) & Crippen in STS1; Lindberg; Shepard; Glenn; Howard Hughes; Chuck Yeager; David Livingstone (I presume); Gagarin;

    1. Magellan actually gave his life in his quest to circumnavigate the globe. But not before he discovered a tribe of native…oh, wait, I did that one already…

  27. Al, I think the Mythbusters make it seem more dangerous than it is. No problem with that – it’s a TV show after all.

    On a related note, IMHO Kari Byron is one of the hottest women on TV – note the iconic picture of her posing with a Barratt (I think, some huge sniper rifle anyway. 🙂 )

    1. Fletcher,

      Perhaps, but their recent cannonball stunt could have killed some bystanders.


      [[[The Discovery Channel show “MythBusters” made a serious case for “don’t try this at home” when one of its science experiments involving homemade cannons went awry, crashing through a San Francisco-area home and landing on a minivan during taping on Dec. 6.

      No one was injured as a result of the accident, however, the show’s hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, said they planned to meet with the owners of the damaged property, according to the TV Column’s Lisa de Moraes. ]]]

      Yep, don’t try this at home, leave it to the experts 🙂

  28. Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who was a proponent of Mendelian genetics. His refusal to recant and accept the “settled science” of Lamarckism caused Trofim Lysenko to order him sent to a Soviet prison in 1940, where he died of starvation in 1943.

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