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Scientists Who Accidentally Paid for Their Research with Their Lives

Updated February 22, 2021 186.4k views14 items

One rarely thinks of scientific research as something dangerous or life threatening, but the number of scientists who accidentally died while doing their research is astounding. In many cases, the scientists who died were so committed to their research that they either threw caution to the wind and experimented on themselves, or they worked on something too complicated for their own time.

All of these scientists who gave their lives working on something that they loved, did so because they wanted the world to be a better place, and they deserve to be remembered.

Each of these scientists paid for their research with their lives, but before they died, they were deep in the throes of scientific research. Keep reading below, and always remember to be careful when you work on something, whether it’s science or not, because anything can - and will - go wrong. 

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    This Canadian physicist and chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II wasn't just some nerd who spent his days in the lab. While at King's college, he was an amateur boxer who won the school's bantamweight boxing championship before fighting in the Spanish Civil War just for kicks. He was a real daredevil, so working on the atomic bomb probably wasn't a big deal to him. While demonstrating a fission reaction at Los Alamos (involving a quantity of plutonium nicknamed the "demon core"), Slotin  accidentally caused a "prompt critical" reaction and a burst of hard radiation. He was rushed to the hospital, but nine days after his exposure to such intense radiation he began experiencing a series of radiation influenced traumas, including severe diarrhea, reduced urine output, swollen hands, erythema, large blisters on his body, intestinal paralysis, and gangrene. He had internal radiation burns throughout his body, which one medical expert described as a “three-dimensional sunburn.”

  • Karen Wetterhahn Received Mercury Poisoning from an Accident

    Karen Wetterhahn was a professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College, NH, who was studying toxic metal exposure, specifically the way mercury ions interact with DNA repair proteins. Wetterhahn was fully aware of the toxicity of the chemicals she was studying, but believed that she was taking all of the necessary precautions to ensure a safe testing area. Prior to her death, Wetterhahn recalled spilling a drop or two of dimethylmercury on her gloved hand, which later tests show would have penetrated the glove and started entering her skin within 15 seconds. Three months after the encounter Wetterhahn began showing signs of intense mercury poisoning, and two months after that she was admitted to the hospital where it was discovered that the single exposure to dimethylmercury had raised her blood mercury level to 4,000 micrograms per liter, or 80 times the toxic threshold. She died less than a year after her single exposure to the toxic chemical. 

  • Daghlian began working on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos while still a graduate student at Purdue University in 1944. What should have been a huge career boost for the budding scientist turned out to be the worst decision of his life. While attempting to build a neutron reflector by stacking a set of 9.7 lb tungsten carbide bricks around a plutonium core, he dropped one of the bricks, causing the core to become critical. Daghlian received a dose of radiation that sent him into a coma, and he died 25 days after the accident. Daghlian was the first known fatality caused by a criticality accident.

  • Harold Maxwell-Lefroy Developed Bug Spray and Then Inhaled Too Much of It

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    Lefroy was an entomologist who came to fruition in the early 20th century as a guy who knew how to get rid of bugs. He was basically the inventor of the first version of Raid. He spent a lot of time in India studying their bugs, and was appointed as the first Imperial Entomologist - which is cool but also kind of awful. In the early 1920s he made it back to England where he was tasked with taking care of a beetle infestation that had taken over Westminster Hall, beside England's Houses of Parliament. That's when he started figuring out which chemicals killed bugs in spectacular fashions. Unfortunately, his success was short lived because he accidentally killed himself while working in his lab when he breathed in a lethal amount of Lewisite