It is not unusual for naturalists to die in the field, they are constantly exposed to dangers of all sort whether they be organisms, natural disasters, or even from man himself. It’s also not unusual for naturalists and scientists in general, to be killed by the very thing they study. Herpetologists have been killed by snake bites which would otherwise be not fatal had they been close to a medical facility. Yet Karl Patterson Schmidt’s death is unusual for two cases, the first of which was that he died in Chicago. Yet the second reason, and perhaps more interesting, was that he documented his own sickness as the venom took hold of his body.
Karl Schmidt was a prominent herpetologist in the mid-1900s. He was president of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists from 1942 to 1946, he was the zoological curator of the Field Museum from 1941 to 1955, and he named over 200 species of animals. His prominence of the field is inarguable.
Yet despite his herpetological knowledge, he was bitten by a boomslang snake on September 25th, 1957 and died the following afternoon. The boomslang snake, AKA Dispholidus typus, is a colubrid snake that can be found in Africa. The boomslang has hemotoxic venom which prevents blood clotting. The venom is stronger than other famous venomous snakes such as cobras and mambas. Extreme care must be used when handling this dangerous animal.
It begs the question why Dr. Schmidt was bitten by this lethal animal at the Field Museum of all places. Well, he was supposed to identify the snake for Mr. Truett of the Lincoln Park Zoo. When Curator Inger handed Schmidt the boomslang snake, Schmidt did not take the special precautions needed for handling it and was subsequently bitten on the thumb.
Schmidt and Inger were unalarmed by the bite. The boomslang snake was very young and only one fang penetrated the skin 3 millimeters deep. Schmidt shrugged off the bite but instead of moving on with his day, he decided, in true, scientifically enthusiastic manner, to document the nature of his health in response to the bite.
His “death notes,” for lack of the better term, were published by C.H. Pope in 1958. And I have to say, after reading them, I am filled with forlornness. Here was a man, enthusiastically documenting his health as it was deteriorating before his eyes without realizing that he would die soon. Dang, man.
Here’s an excerpt from one of his writings
“9:00 PM-12:20 AM Slept well. No blood in urine before going to sleep, but very small amount of urine. Urination at 12:20 AM mostly blood, but small in amount. Mouth had bled steadily as shown by dried blood at both angles of mouth.”
Schmidt is meticulous in his writings as he documents his temperature, diet, vomiting, and so forth at the time they happen. As such, his writings give us a very unique and personal look at the effects of a boomslang bite while being objective about it. Indeed, had Schmidt known that he was in peril, his documentation may have been rushed, confused, and mismanaged.
His notes stop the following morning when he thought he was getting better. But after noon, he had troubled breathing and soon died shortly before 3:00 pm due to respiratory paralysis. It is presumed from the autopsy report that his trouble breathing came from hemorrhaging in the lungs. The autopsy also revealed hemorrhaging in the renal pelvis and the small intestine which accounts for Schimidt’s documentation of blood in his urine and bowels.
Dr. Schmidt’s death was tragic, but we gain much knowledge from it. We now know of the effects of a boomslang bite and when they will happen. But at the same time, I can’t help but think how much hubris Dr. Schmidt had. Even when he was bitten by a known dangerous snake, even when he was witnessing the disastrous effects it had on his body, even when he was in reach of medical aid, he did nothing about it and died. The irony stuns me.
If you want to read the death notes yourself then check out Pope C.H., 1958. Fatal Bite of Captive African Rear-Fanged Snake (Dispholidus). Copeia, 1958, pg 280-282. It’s a short but dour read that should be read by snake enthusiasts everywhere.