Scientists Who Accidentally Paid for Their Research with Their Lives

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. 

  • Marie Curie Tested The Effects Of Radioactivity And Paid The Price
    Photo: Henri Manuel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Born in 1867, Marie Curie overcame massive hurdles for a woman growing up in the 19th century. She went to great lengths in order to attend school and become one of the most important scientists the world has ever known. To earn her PhD, Curie began investigating uranium and quickly discovered that uranium rays charge the air that they pass through. She also found that the number of rays coming from uranium depends on the amount of uranium present, not the chemical reaction.

    Over the next few decades Curie would win a Nobel prize and become the first female professor at the University of Paris. Unfortunately, she would also succumb to aplastic anemia, a disease of the bone marrow that was likely caused by the radioactivity she had been exposed to during her career. 

  • Alexander Bogdanov Accidentally Blood Transfused Himself To Death
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alexander Bogdanov was a fascinating human being. He was a close friend of Vladimir Lenin, a science fiction author, a poet, and a doctor who was obsessed with hematology.

    One of Bogdanov's theories was that he could become immortal through blood transfusions - which is definitely not a thing, but in the 1920s you had to learn that the hard way. Bogdanov gave himself transfusion after transfusion, claiming that each one made him feel better than the last. Unfortunately, he swapped blood with a student who was suffering from malaria and died. 

  • David A. Johnston Saw Mount St. Helens Erupt And Was Killed By The Pyroclastic Blast
    Photo: Harry Glicken / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    David A. Johnston Saw Mount St. Helens Erupt And Was Killed By The Pyroclastic Blast

    When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, USGS volcanologist David A. Johnston was the first scientist to send out a warning to let people know of the disaster. His storied career included stints studying extinct calderas in Colorado, and sheets of ash flow in the 1912 eruption of Mount Katmai in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Leading up to the blast on Mount St. Helens, Johnston was one of the few scientists who believed that volcanic activity was still possible on the mountain. He chose to take part in dangerous on-site monitoring and told journalists that it was like, “standing next to a dynamite keg and the fuse is lit.”

    Before his radio went silent, after Johnston and his trailer were overcome by the volcano blast, he relayed: "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!"

  • Dian Fossey Was Murdered While Studying Gorillas
    Photo: Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Wikipedia / Fair use

    Dian Fossey's life's work was studying gorillas in their native habitat in the forests of Rwanda, which is dangerous on so many levels. While primates can be aggressive, the animals didn't actually pose a threat to the to the primatologist and antrhopologist who had been studying gorillas for 18 years - it was humans who were the true danger to her and her work. 

    In 1985, Fossey was found murdered in her cabin in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda. In spite of an investigation, Rwanda courts came to the conclusion that Wayne McGuire, her research assistant, killed Fossey and they tried him in absentia. McGuire had already gone home to the United States by the time the trial, which was dubious at best, had occurred. Since there's no extradition policy between America and Rwanda, McGuire has served no time for the murder. Most people doubt McGuire's guilt and believe that poachers, who frequently interrupted Fossey's research, were truly responsible for her murder. 

  • Louis Slotin Worked At The Manhattan Project And Irradiated Himself
    Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    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
    Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Fair use

    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.