Sunday, February 28, 2010


This is the fifth and last in a multi-part blog on the topic of FIRST CREDIT in the sciences.

Sometimes, credit falls on the person who least understood the significance of his own work. In 1771, Charles Messier (1730 - 1817) , selected 103 heavenly objects that have captured the rapt attention of astronomers for nearly two and a half centuries. Messier selected regions of space that were nebulous, and obscured his view of comets (his sole interest). He made a point of categorizing the Messier objects as areas of space that should be avoided by serious astronomers. In 1771, his chosen spots might have been accurately called the Messier non-objects.

Charles Messier.
Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

Today, the Messier objects are credited with holding some of the most fascinating galaxies and cosmologic curiosities in the known universe. Though Messier was completely wrong, he has achieved scientific immortality, just the same.

Messier object 51.
Source: Wikipedia, public domain NASA image.

The first observation of a particular type of anemia associated with sickled red blood cells, was made by Ernest E. Irons (1). Dr. Irons was a young intern when he encountered a patient, Walter Clement Noel, and made his historic observation. He alerted his attending physician, James B. Herrick. Irons sketched the shaped of the cells directly into the patient's hospital record. Herrick wrote the 1910 case report as a single author submission, excluding Irons (2). To this day, the disease sickle cell anemia carries the eponym, Herrick's disease (not Irons disease).

Sometimes first credit goes to the wrong species. Salicylic acid has been used as a medicinal by several different ancient cultures. In the western tradition, Hippocrates (5th century BC) claimed that a bitter powder extracted from willow bark could ease aches and pains. How did the ancients know that willow bark would relieve pain? Bears were observed rubbing against the bark of willow trees when wounded. The humans stole credit for an ursine discovery.

[1] Savitt TL, Goldberg MF. Herrick's 1910 case report of sickle cell anemia: the rest of the story. JAMA 261: 266-271, 1989.

[2] Herrick JB. Peculiar elongated and sickle-shaped red blood corpuscles in a case of severe anemia. Arch Intern Med 6:517-521, 1910.

This is the last entry on the topic of FIRST CREDIT in the sciences. If you have read the five-part series, I'd appreciate reading your comments.

© 2010 Jules Berman

key words: history of science , specified life blog , Jules J Berman PhD, MD
Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.