Welcome back to the Lab!

In 1901, an unfortunate construction worker in southern California was visiting an outhouse at his jobsite when he felt a slight pinch on his underside. Within a couple hours, he was in immense pain. Within 14 hours, he was dead. After his death, the outhouse was investigated, and the culprit discovered: a black widow spider.

Diagnosing spider bites is an extremely tricky and often misinformed practice, but envenomation by a black widow is unmistakable. Widow venom causes our body to overload our nervous system with pain signals, causing muscle cramping, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, nausea, and a myriad of other symptoms. But back in 1901, the toxicity of widow venom was unknown, and the attending doctor could only treat the agonized man for his pain and potential infection. 

The patient was given potassium permanganate to treat infection, a common antifungal and antiseptic agent. To control his pain, he was given the classic early 1900’s combination of cocaine and morphine. When his condition did not immediately improve, the patient panicked and “down[ed] several six-ounce glasses of whiskey.” 

Shortly after his episode of self-medication, the patient lost consciousness. In an effort to revive him, the doctor injected him with – what else? – more whiskey. Oh, and strychnine. 

The incident was the first of its kind, recognized as the first medically documented case of death by black widow. But Dr. Merri Lynn Casem, chair and professor of biological science at Cal State Fullerton, isn’t so convinced. In an interview last November, Dr. Casem responds, “Was the spider responsible, the doctor, or George himself? This research is the sort of story that can be left for the reader to decide.”

Black widows, and spiders of all kinds, are often unfairly blamed for a number of skin conditions, from infected blemishes to MRSA. Dr. Casem’s research is just a glimpse into a longstanding history of misdiagnoses.

Until next time, thanks for visiting the lab!

Bug Wrangler Brenna

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