How a scientist’s daring experiments pushed the limits of medicine

Dr. Robert White standing behind medical equipment and a brain in a jar
Dr. Robert White standing behind medical equipment and a brain in a jar
Dr. Robert White in the Brain Research Lab. Image: Permission of White Family Archive

On a cold night in Cleveland in 1971, Dr. Robert White waited for signs of life. He stood, exhausted and still enrobed in a stiff surgical coat, over an operating table. Fluorescent lights bled color from the room, leaving it sterile, silent. A rhesus monkey lay before him — its shaved neck with the stitches still showing in a zipper seam that stretched 360 degrees.

On the line were years of work, months of waiting, and the stinging wounds of battles he’d fought against animal rights groups, the media, and even his own colleagues in the name of science. One…

Why scientists are manufacturing monkeys and hybrid embryos

Photo: Andre Mouton/Unsplash

On September 12th of 2020, scientists from US-based Revive and Restore cloned a Przewalski colt, last of the true wild horses, from 40-year-old DNA. Just this past February, scientists cloned a North American black footed ferret at a breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.

In both cases, low population numbers led to a lack of genetic diversity — often an evolutionary death knell, leaving a species vulnerable to disease. Wildlife cloning has been hailed as a conservation success, but some of the strangest features of cloning often get left out of the story.

For one thing, the DNA donors were…

Fountain of youth or fatuous fad, hyperbaric oxygen therapy requires a lot of nerve

Hyperbaric Center of Queens, Creative Commons

No one is really prepared to spend two hours in a high-pressure oxygen tube as though you’re about to be punted into space through an air-lock. But given recent news stories claiming hyperbaric oxygen therapy can make you younger, cure inflammatory conditions, and even treat neurological disorders, a lot of people are still willing to try. I decided to see what the treatment was all about — and I learned that it isn’t for the faint of heart.

The term hyperbaric just means high pressure. Therapy involves allowing a patient to breathe 100% oxygen inside a pressurized tube to increase…

Coping With Death

The Intricacy of Grief in Uncertain Times

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

Death is not a thing, but things: a process of emotions, states of being, suddenly shifting relationships, the buzz of needful activity, an empty chair, a dialed number that doesn’t connect. In the clutches of grief, death may seem like a single event, the running down of a curtain beyond which none of us can see — but it is also a path, a journey, a process.

Knowing this more deeply can help us to grieve.

In my book Death’s Summer Coat, I talk a lot about the human need to categorize and differentiate. We want to say: surely death

Coping With Death

In the wake of Covid-19, we are all grieving. How can we come to terms with death — and what does it teach us about living?

Hanwell Cemetery; Photo: Edward Howell/Unsplash

In 2015, I published a book. It began like this:

“A wake,” my mother said. “To sit with the dead.”

We were on our way to West Virginia, to an unremarkable two-story colonial where my grandfather’s remains had been washed and laid out for viewing. It had been raining all night, but apparently no one in this homey funeral parlor had been sleeping. They’d been sitting up with the body. Sitting up — with the body — all night.

There are no good adjectives to describe my feelings about this. I was seventeen and grieving, but I wasn’t horrified. Shocked…

Despite the rise in gut health awareness, treatments for IBS have barely changed in decades

Photo: Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

You probably know the drill: you see a new doctor and have to answer a long checklist about your condition. For me, it’s a new gastroenterologist, and the long history bit is exhausting. Yes, I have flare ups — yes, they are painful. I suffer from IBS-C, which is slightly more polite than saying “irritable bowel syndrome with constipation.” Embarrassing, right?

Essentially, my digestive system goes paralytic. It just…stops. But of course, bacteria don’t stop; they continue doing the work of digesting things and creating byproducts that take up space. A lot of space. …

The unusual history of whiskey surgery and cocaine tooth drops

Photo: National Library of Medicine

There once was a time without pain killer. We had no aspirin, no ibuprofen, no anesthetic for surgery. How did we manage pain in the past? What led to the first breakthroughs in pain management? Can it help us confront chronic pain today?

It can be difficult to imagine a life without pain medicine. Just this morning, I awoke with a pressure headache due to an incoming storm front. I took a few ibuprofen and went on with my day. Most of us have passing pains like these: a stiff back from garden work, sore muscles from an overzealous romp…

Why does tea calm our nerves?

Photo: Loverna Journey/Unsplash

You’ve had a terrible day. The car wouldn’t start and you walked to the bus stop in pouring rain; you spilled coffee on your trousers; your boss was a pain; your deadline is late. You’ve finally dragged yourself home, damp and deflated, and all you want is a cup of tea to calm your nerves and soothe the day away. It works! But — why does it?

We have been using tea of one kind or another for thousands of years, but green (and black) tea originate in China. Tea has been found in tombs dating as far back as…

A Russian defense minister suggested using 3,000 year old DNA to clone Scythian warriors. Here’s why that can’t happen — and a look at what’s really possible .

Scythian Comb (6th-5th Cent. BCE) — Regional History Museum, Creative Commons

In April, Sergei Kuzhugetovich Shoigu, Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, attended an online session with the Geographical Society. They were showcasing the unearthed, ancient remains of Scythian soldiers found in the Tuva region of Siberia. History (and folklore) speak to the prowess of this warrior tribe, and though buried for three-thousand years in permafrost, their bodies have been remarkably well-preserved. Shoigu, who is also General of the Russian Army, asked just how well the tissue had stood the test of time. …

Brandy L Schillace

Author/Editor. Writing about history, science, & medicine for Scientific American, Undark, Globe and Mail, and more. Twitter:@bschillace

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