When we think of scientists and researchers, a passion for discovery, not a penchant for daredevil antics, is usually what comes to mind. Yet many a researcher has faced injury, illness and even death in the name of scientific breakthroughs. After all, when dissecting the mysteries of plague and plutonium, it doesn’t take much for things to go terribly wrong.
Whether through naiveté or simple slip-ups, these scientists all met their death because of the experiments they were conducting.
1. Carl Scheele (1742-1786)
The genius pharmaceutical chemist discovered many new elements, most famously oxygen (even if Joseph Priestley did publish his findings first and get all the glory), as well as molybdenum, tungsten, manganese and chlorine. But these were the days before OSHA and the knowledge of just how toxic chemical concoctions could be. Scheele had the bad habit of using all of his senses in his work, including smell and taste. Egad. He managed to survive his taste-test of hydrogen cyanide, but cumulative exposure to mercury, lead, fluoric acid, and other nasty toxins finally did him in, leading to his demise thanks to heavy metal toxicity at the age of 44.
2. Elizabeth Fleischman Ascheim (1859-1905)
Upon learning of the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, California girl Elizabeth Fleischman Ascheim gave up her job as a bookkeeper and enrolled in electrical science school. She was a quick study, and soon purchased X-ray equipment to open one of the first X-ray labs in the country. Along with her physician brother-in-law, she began obsessively experimenting with the medium — often with the two of them spending long days X-raying each other in the name of science. She saw many patients from the Spanish-American War and went on to specialize in dental work, earning a reputation as a remarkable radiologist. Yet she refused to protect herself during experiments and treating patients, saying that it would make her patients uncomfortable with the procedure to see her using protection. She died of radiation poisoning at the age of 46, and is remembered as one of the “martyrs to radiology.”
3. Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928)
The Russian Bogdanov was a physician, economist, philosopher, natural scientist, science fiction writer, poet, teacher, politician, revolutionary, an early pioneer of cybernetics and organizational science, and founder of the world’s first institution devoted entirely to blood transfusions — the Soviet Institute for Blood Transfusion, which he opened in 1926. He was a pioneer in hematology, and went so far as to perform 11 transfusions on himself, which he declared cured his balding and improved his eyesight. Unfortunately, his last transfusion was tainted with malaria and tuberculosis, putting an end to his life and his remarkable first-person research.
4. Marie Curie (1867-1934)
The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired the research of science power couple, Marie and Pierre Curie. Their brilliant research and analysis led to the isolation of polonium, named after Marie’s homeland, and radium. Marie spent her life conducting radiation research and studying radiation therapy, yet her continual exposure to the elements led to leukemia, which took its toll in 1934. Among her many accolades, she has been the only person to receive two Nobel prizes in science in two different fields: chemistry and physics.
5. Haroutune (Harry) K. Daghlian Jr. (1921-1945)
American physicist Harry Daghlian was part of on the Manhattan Project at the remote Omega Site facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. On Aug 21, 1945, during a critical mass experiment, he accidentally dropped a tungsten carbide brick onto a plutonium bomb core. Oopsy. The mishap caused a critical reaction, and Daghlian quickly tried to knock the brick away, unsuccessfully, and resorted to removing the bricks by hand to halt the reaction. He stopped the reaction, but was exposed to massive amounts of radiation. He died 25 days later.
6. Malcolm Casadaban (1949-2009)
An associate professor of molecular genetics and cell biology and microbiology at the University of Chicago, specialist Casadaban was performing laboratory research on the bacterium that causes the plague when he became sick and died from plague. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the incident, the strain that killed Casadaban had never been known to infect laboratory workers as it was a genetically weakened strain. Casadaban was found to have undiagnosed hereditary hemochromatosis, which likely played in a role in his death.
7. Richard Din (1987-2012)
Researcher Richard Din worked at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education, where the focus of his research had been developing a vaccine to protect against the dangerous bacterium known as Neisseria meningitidis, a strain of bacteria that causes meningococcal disease, and leads to meningitis and bloodstream infections. The UC Berkeley graduate came down with a headache and nausea, and by the next morning his symptoms had worsened enough to require a hospital visit. His condition deteriorated quickly, and he died 17 hours after his symptoms first appeared. The cause? Meningococcal disease from the bacterium he had been working on. No accidents had occurred, and Din was said to have been a fastidious, rule-following worker, but he wasn’t vaccinated for the illness despite CDC recommendations to the contrary. (Although, likely a vaccine wouldn’t help, since it was a vaccine he was working on for a strain that was resistant to vaccine.) Fortunately, about 70 people who came into contact with Din promptly received antibiotic treatment and none of them came down with the illness.