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AW Blair: Effects of the Black Widow on Man

Dr. Allan Walker Blair
In November 1933, University of Alabama professor Allan Walker Blair used a pair of forceps to place a female black widow spider against the index finger of his left hand. Immediately the spider sunk its chitinous claws into his skin, twisting its body from side to side as if to drive them in deeper. Blair held the spider in this position for ten seconds, as its venom entered his body.

Blair later explained his actions as part of an experimental study of the effects of the bite of the female black widow on man. A curious aspect of this experiment was that the effects of the bite were already known. As Blair himself noted, a fellow entomologist, William Baerg, had conducted a similar self-experiment twelve years earlier. Baerg had been rushed to the hospital nine hours after being bitten, where he spent three days tossing and turning, wracked by nightmarish, feverish pain. Blair was not only aware of this, but decided to allow the spider to bite him for twice as long as Baerg had risked. As a result, his suffering was proportionately greater.

Within minutes after the bite, Blair began to experience severe muscular cramps that made it difficult for him to breathe. Two hours later, he was writhing on the floor, perspiring profusely, and had to be rushed to the hospital. By the time he reached it, his blood pressure had dropped dramatically. The attending physician later commented, "I do not recall having seen more abject pain manifested in any other medical or surgical condition. All the evidences of profound medical shock were present."

A black widow and its cocoon

Despite the agony he was experiencing, Blair insisted the hospital take electrocardiograms to determine the effect of the venom on his heart. He told the staff that it felt like torture to lie still as they hooked up their equipment, but somehow he forced himself to suffer through it, and the measurements were found to be normal, not differing significantly from ones taken two days before he was bitten.

Blair's agony didn't let up for several days. At one point, he became so delirious that he feared he was losing his mind. Thankfully, after a week the worst was over and he was allowed to return home. However, he continued to experience an itching sensation all over his skin for several more weeks.

Based on this self-experiment, Blair concluded what may have seemed rather obvious to everyone else — that the bite of a female black widow spider is indeed "dangerously poisonous for man."
  • Blair, A.W. (1934), "Spider Poisoning: Experimental Study of the Effects of the Bite of the Female Latrodectus mactans in Man", Archives of Internal Medicine, 54(6): 831-43.
Posted By: alex | Date: Mon Aug 01, 2011
Category: Animals, Toxinology, 1900-1949, United States, Self-Experiments, Insects,
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