Science goes to Hollywood– favorite movie scenes, 3

November 15, 2010 • 11:44 am

by Greg Mayer

My last (at least for now) candidate for favorite science-y movie scene is from one of the great all-time classic B movies, The Killer Shrews. In the film, some scientists on an island are menaced by giant, venomous shrews. (Some shrews, such as  the short tailed shrew, Blarina brevicauda, of the eastern US and Canada, are, in fact, venomous.). In the following clip, about 8:10 in, the people have barricaded themselves inside a house, while the shrews roam about outside. The two men wearing ties are the scientists (dress code issues, again!); a shrew has broken into the house, and dashes out of the kitchen towards Dr. Baines (in glasses). [Updated 2019 07 30 with available video clip.]

After Dr. Baines falls dead to the floor, and his furiously-made typescript is examined, Dr. Cragis solemnly intones, “He recorded every symptom and reaction, right up to the moment of his death.”

The movie is justly famous for its absurdly amateurish special effects– the shrews appear to be dogs wearing rubber noses with shag carpets strapped to their backs. But what makes it a favorite scene is that it is based on a true incident– the death, by snakebite, of the great herpetologist  Karl P. Schmidt.

Schmidt, long time curator of amphibians and reptiles at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and coauthor of two influential ecology textbooks, died on September 26, 1957, one day after being bitten by a small boomslang (Dispholidus typus) at the Museum. The boomslang is a rear-fanged colubrid snake (i.e. not one of the more specialized venomous snakes, the vipers and the cobras and their relatives) from southern Africa, and Schmidt and his colleagues were lulled into a misled optimism by the snake’s small size and that only one fang had bitten him.

Boomslang, Dispholidus typus. Photo by William Warby, from Wikimedia.

Schmidt began taking notes about what happened, and recorded his symptoms until after breakfast the next day. By 3 PM he was dead. Chicago newspapers gave his death a prominent place in their pages. The Chicago Daily Tribune‘s Thomas Buck wrote

Dedication to Science Blamed in Tragedy…An inquest into the death of Dr. Karl P. Schmidt, world famous herpetologist who wrote a scientific account of his symptoms while dying from snake bite, will be resumed today in the city hall in Chicago Heights. (Chicago Daily Tribune Oct. 4 1957)

An unusual chapter of medical history was written yesterday at the inquest in the death of Dr. Karl P. Schmidt famed herpetologist who recorded his symptoms of snake poisoning without apparent foreboding or emotion. (Chicago Daily Tribune Oct. 5 1957)

Schmidt’s notes on the bite and his symptoms were published posthumously. Here’s part of what he wrote:

I took it [the snake] from Dr. [Robert] Inger [another famed Chicago herpetologist] without thinking of any precaution, and it promptly bit me on the fleshy lateral aspect of the first joint of the left thumb. The mouth was widely opened and the bite was made with the rear fangs only, only the right fang entering to its full length of about 3 mm.

Clifford H. Pope, yet another famed Chicago herpetologist, who prepared Schmidt’s notes for publication, wrote in his comments accompanying them,

That Dr. Schmidt’s optimism was extremely unfortunate is proved by his death, but it must be admitted that there was some justification: The boomslang was very young and only one fang penetrated deeply. However, almost two decades ago careful experimentation by Grasset and Schaafsma (South African Med. Jour., 1940, 14: 236-41) showed that boomslang venom has an extraordinarily high toxicity, even higher than those of such notorious snakes as cobras, kraits, and mambas. This fact alone dictates extreme caution in handling boomslangs of all sizes, even though they be among the most mild tempered of venomous snakes.

Davis, D.D. 1959. Karl Patterson Schmidt, 1890-1957. Copeia 1959(3): 189-192.

Pope, C.H. 1958. Fatal bite of captive African rear-fanged snake (Dispholidus). Copeia 1958(4): 280-282. (Schmidt’s notes are in this paper.)