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Our Unknown Martyrs

Behind every famous scientist who died or suffered greatly for his work there stand in serried ranks hundreds of others—the unknown martyrs of science. For them there is no roll of honor, no shrine of remembrance. No sacred flame burns for them in any academy, and if their names were briefly known to colleagues, they were soon forgotten again. This is the gratitude of mankind remembering its unknown soldiers everywhere, but not its scientists. The dramatic accident of the space shuttle Cha

By | February 9, 1987

Behind every famous scientist who died or suffered greatly for his work there stand in serried ranks hundreds of others—the unknown martyrs of science. For them there is no roll of honor, no shrine of remembrance. No sacred flame burns for them in any academy, and if their names were briefly known to colleagues, they were soon forgotten again. This is the gratitude of mankind remembering its unknown soldiers everywhere, but not its scientists.

The dramatic accident of the space shuttle Challenger reminded us all of the dangers of space exploration, but who will remember the names of the crew? In 1967, astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee burned to death in Apollo 1, and a silver medal remains as their only memorial.

Only a few martyrs of science became famous, and they must speak for the many unknown. Let us recall them briefly.

From Archimedes to Apollo

Archimedes, in about 210 B.C., was the first to die for science. According to Plutarch, a Roman soldier killed him when he wanted to continue doing his geometrical figures. Pliny the Elder was next. He insisted on watching the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. until it was too late to escape. Giordano Bruno, the scientific philosopher, was burned to death by the Inquisition in Rome in 1600 for his apostasy and heretical views. Captain James Cook was kified by the natives of Hawaii in 1779, and the French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was executed in 1794—La République n's pas besoin de savants. Ignaz Semmelweis died in 1865 from an infected wound, harboring the same deadly disease he had fought all his professional life. But they were not alone. Who knows all the victims of the Inquisition who held scientific views contrary to the accepted faith and who died at the stake?

And how many scientific explorers never returned home? Mungo Park explored the Niger and died in Africa in 1806, and Dr. Leichardt searched for the overland route across Australia but never returned from his journey in 1848. By the beginning of the present century, arctic and antarctic exploration started in earnest, and among the many who paid with their lives were Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1911. In his last message he wrote, "We took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us and therefore we have no reason to complain." These words could well be the epitaph for all the known and unknown martyrs of science.

Think of the many alchemists who in their obsession with the transmutation of mercury into gold must have died from inhaling mercury fumes. Let us remember too the many modern chemists who improved explosives, such as Alfred Nobel's researchers who in 1862 converted the dangerous nitroglycerine into the safe dynamite. Even today, biologists are often horrified at the seeming indifference of chemists to the biological hazards of the chemicals they handle. Think also of the chemists during World War I who developed and tested poison gases, and those who work in chemical weapon research today.

Not all unknown martyrs died in far-distant places. On December 23, 1973 The Lancet reported that more than 150 deaths had been caused by laboratory-acquired infection since 1900. When medical research changed from bacterial to virus investigations, the dangers increased, as the Marburg virus outbreak in 1967 demonstrated. Again, let the name of one speak for the many: the American bacteriologist J.W. Lazear was a member of Walter Reed's team investigating yellow fever in Havana in 1900. He contracted the disease and died.

Finally, radioactivity. How many years was the life of Marie Curie shortened? How many of the doctors and researchers who used X-rays in the early days without taking precautions contracted cancer without knowing the cause? Are we to count the operators of the Chernobyl reactor among the unknown martyrs? Undoubtedly they took foolish risks, but one hopes that their deaths will contribute to safer reactors in the future. Deaths, serious injuries, and great physical and mental suffering will not halt the exploration of space or the progress of science in the laboratory.

It is sad that there is no memorial to the hundreds or thousands who paid with their lives for the progress of science and mankind. When such a memorial is finally consecrated, it should bear this inscription, drawn from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses":

"All experience is an arch wherethro 'gleams that untravell'd world whose margins fade forever and forever....

Michaelis is editor of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Spectrum House,
Hillview Gardens, London NW4 2JQ, United Kingdom.

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