10/30/2015

Diary of a Snake Bite Death

05:31 minutes

The boomslang snake, Dispholidus typus, is a venomous snake found in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 1957, famed herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt was bitten by a boomslang snake while trying to identify the specimen. Ever the scientist, Schmidt meticulously documented the effects of the venom on his body until his death 24 hours later.

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Segment Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] IRA FLATOW: Snakes, snakes, you know, they’re not the usual Halloween fair, but our next story is presented for your consideration is a grizzly cross between a Rod Serling tale and an Edgar Allan Poe short story, except it’s all true. It’s a tale of a snake scientist, a herpetologist, Karl P Schmidt, who was bitten by a poisonous snake. He did not go to the hospital, but meticulously documented the effects of the bite from the snake on his own body as he slowly died drip by bloody drip.

The rest of the story can be seen in our latest macrosope video up on our sciencefriday.com website. Here to tell us about it is a SciFri Video Producer Luke Raskin. Hi, Luke.

LUKE RASKIN: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this story.

LUKE RASKIN: Sure. So Karl P. Schmidt– Karl P. Schmidt is famous herpetologist who worked at the Field Museum from roughly the ’30s to the ’50s. And this is a man that’s pretty prestigious in his field at the time. He has many species named after him. And he identified many species. And even though he was very prestigious, he didn’t know what species of snake he was handling in 1957 when the Lincoln Park Zoo sent him this small juvenile snake.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International talking with Luke Raskin and following up on the story. Continue.

LUKE RASKIN: Sure. So the snake turned out to be a boomslang. And he didn’t really know if it was– he knew was venomous, but he didn’t think it was going to bite him, and then it did.

CHARLES BERQUIST: “September 25, 1957. Page 1. A 30 inch snake propped for identification to the Chicago Natural History Museum from the Lincoln Park Zoo proved to be uncommonly difficult name. It was known to be an African snake and with the characteristic head shape, oblique and keeled dorsal scales, and bright colored pattern should have offered no difficulty. But no key for identification would make it a boomslang for the anal plate was undivided. That it was nevertheless a boomslang, Dispholidus typus, was dramatically tested by its behavior.

I was discussing the possibility of its being a boomslang when I took it without thinking of any precaution and it promptly bit me on the fleshy lateral aspect of the first joint of the left thumb. The poachers blood freely and I sucked them vigorously. The mouth was widely open and the bite was made with the rear fangs only, only the right fang had earned its full length of about three millimeters.

Page 2. 4:30 to 5:30 PM, strong nausea, but without vomiting during trip to home on suburban train. 5:30 to 6:30 PM, strong chill and shaking followed by fever of 101.7 degrees, bleeding with mucous membranes in the mouth began about 5:30, apparently mostly from gums. 8:30 PM ate two pieces of milk toast. 9:00 to 12:20 AM slept well.

Urination at 12:20 AM, mostly blood, but small in amount. Took a glass of water at 4:30 AM followed by violent nausea and vomiting. The contents of the stomach being the undigested supper. Felt much better and slept until 6:30 AM.

Page 3. September, 26 6:30 AM, temperature 98.28. Ate cereal and poached egg on toast and applesauce and coffee for breakfast. No urine with an ounce or so blood about every three hours. Mouth and nose continuing to bleed, not excessively.” Diary ends.

IRA FLATOW: That diary is our macroscope this week. It’s the diary of Karl P. Schmidt. The voice of our director Charles Berquist, the voice of Karl P. Schmidt. It’s up there on our website.

LUKE RASKIN: That’s right. And if you watch, you can decide if Karl P. Schmidt was actually the victim of a snake bite or something else killed him. Our producer of the video, Tom McNamara, has a theory. You should definitely check it out.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. See what you think. Thank you, Luke.

LUKE RASKIN: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You can watch the macroscope video on our website at sciencefriday.com/snakebite. One last thing, happy 81st birthday to Bill Siemering this week. He still travels the world with his developing radio partners, helping radio stations in developing countries build up their communication skills. You may not know that Bill invented all things considered and fresh air, and he gave me my first job in radio. I wouldn’t be here if or not for Bill. Happy birthday, Bill

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About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim is a producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.