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Edwin Katskee: Death by Cocaine
Cocaine was the first local anesthetic used in medicine. Its use brought many benefits by allowing surgeons to avoid having to rely on more dangerous general anesthetics. Nevertheless, occasionally patients had bad reactions to the drug. In an effort to find out why this was the case, the Nebraska proctologist Edwin Katskee gave himself a large injection of cocaine on the night of 25 November 1936. He then recorded the clinical course of his symptoms in notes written on the wall of his office. As it turned out, the amount of cocaine he gave himself was so large it proved fatal. The media described his note-filled wall as his "death diary".

A portion of Katskee's 'Death Diary'

Katskee scrawled the notes in no apparent order, but it was possible to piece together their chronology by the decreasing legibility of his handwriting. An early note recorded: "Eyes mildly dilated. Vision excellent." The cocaine caused bouts of paralysis and convulsions that came in waves. In between one of these bouts he wrote, "Partial recovery. Smoked cigarette." High up on the wall he scribbled, "Now able to stand up." And elsewhere, "After depression is terrible. Advise all inquisitive M.D.'s to lay off this stuff."

In one spot, in a shaky hand, he recorded his "Clinical course over about twelve minutes". This ended with the word "Paralysis," which tapered off into a wavy scrawl descending to the floor. It was probably the last word he ever wrote.

The press debated whether Katskee was the victim of a self-experiment that went wrong, or whether he had simply committed suicide. His family argued it was clearly medical research gone wrong, pointing out that investigators found an antidote at the scene, which, for some reason, Katskee had failed to give himself — perhaps the effects of the drug prevented him from doing so.

Or perhaps Katskee had hoped to end his life in a way that would benefit science. In which case, his death was even more tragic, because when his notes were subsequently examined by one of his medical colleagues, the doctor concluded they were so incoherent as to be of no scientific value whatsoever.
  • "Doctor scribbles narrative of own death by narcotic" (27 November 1936), Los Angeles Times: 1, 7.
Posted By: alex | Date: Mon Aug 01, 2011
Category: Death, 1900-1949, United States, Narcotics, Self-Experiments,
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