Science goes to Hollywood– favorite movie scenes, 3

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).

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.)

14 Comments

  1. GaryU
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Schmidt’s death reminded me of the death of Dr. Joe Slowinski, who died in Borneo from the bite of a krait. He described what would happen to him, including that he would lose the ability to breathe on his own and urged his team to take up mouth-to-mouth at that time. Unfortunately, the weather prevented sending a rescue helicopter and his heart eventually stopped.

  2. stvs
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    This science movie scene is not as widely known as it should be: Fantasia‘s 1940 depiction of the evolution of life on earth from protists to the extinction of the dinosaurs, all “red in tooth and claw”, and set to “Rite of Spring”. The introduction that goes with it doesn’t appear to be online. This is a pretty good clip to point to to ask at which point accommodationists think that the Disney animators should insert god into the story of life on earth?

  3. Sajanas
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading of something similar, not with a proper herpetologist, but with man who own a snake milking center in Florida, Bill Haast. He was bitten by a less well known krait (or similar rear-fanged snake) and although there was anti-serum available, since there was no clinical information about the progression of symptoms, he decided to let it run its course for a while before treatment.
    He’s still alive and apparently still being bitten by rare, crazy dangerous snakes every year or two.

  4. Kevin
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful snake. I make it a point to visit the reptile exhibits when I have a chance to go to the zoo on various trips.

    One of the best exhibits I’ve seen in quite a while comes from what might be seen as an unusual place: Reptile Gardens, just outside of Rapid City, SD. It’s a tourist-trappy kind of place, and they do have ‘gator ‘rassling and stuff like that.

    But they also have a world-class snake exhibit, including this little beauty.

    If you’re headed to Mount Rushmore, you could do a lot worse than spend a couple of hours at Reptile World. The kids can pet the giant tortoises, and there’s a resident bald eagle as well.

  5. Dominic
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I am going to suggest yet another film – Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, aka Doppelgangers. It was out in 1969 so looks a little shabby in contrast with Kubrik’s 2001, but is nonetheless interesting for its space ‘science’. In this future there are no video screens anywhere – perhaps because of cost. Computers are still punch cards & teleprinters, rockets are Saturn V-like, & the script is less than brilliant (wooden), but it has interesting points to make & model effects as it was a Gerry Anderson film (Thunderbirds etc).

    • Dominic
      Posted November 16, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink

      ‘Kubrik’ famous for his Kube – Kubrick!

  6. MadScientist
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Humans seem to have a nasty habit of observing the general behavior of animals (or even a specific animal) and assuming that all animals of that class behave the same all the time. Dolphins are ‘friendly’, giant rays are ‘placid’, some snake is mild mannered (except when it’s wearing it’s cape and underwear).

  7. stvs
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Wow, if someone recommended Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, then I feel safe recommending Santa Claus Conquers the Martians with the story that goes with it.

    When I was a tyke, one weekend my dad told me I had a choice: he would take me to THE RODEO (which was visiting town), or I could choose a movie to go to. THIS MOVIE, I said, pointing to the newspaper ad for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Probably realizing his mistake, he told me about the wonders of THE RODEO and asked me if I was sure. So he kept his word and took me to the matinee. My inner voice even as a child was, “this is a REALLY BAD movie”, then I was overcome with tremendous guilt for making my dad take me to the REALLY BAD movie and missing THE RODEO.

    Years later, I began looking for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on DVD, but it was only available with robot snarky commentary on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Finally, they released it, so I sent a copy to my dad for Christmas.

    Hooray for Santy Claus!

    • Dominic
      Posted November 16, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink

      If that’s not an example of a father’s nobility, I don’t know what is! ;)

  8. Posted November 15, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. The Killer Shrews is not famous for its cheesy effects. It’s famous for Mystery Science Theater 3000 mocking its cheesy effects.

    Let’s get our facts straight.

    • Nate Proctor
      Posted November 18, 2010 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Indeed. This is a smart man.

  9. MikeN
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Not to mention the famous last lines:

    Dr. Milo Craigis: In 24 hours there will be one shrew left on the island, and he will be dead of starvation. An excellent example of overpopulation.

    Thorne Sherman: You know something doctor?

    Dr. Milo Craigis: What’s that?

    Thorne Sherman: I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet
    [Kisses Ann, Fade Out]

  10. abadidea
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    “Boomslang” is one of those fantastic Dutch words. It just means “tree snake” but the sound is priceless. Boomslang. Boomslang.

    (“Boom” in Dutch is properly pronounced like English “Bome”)


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] died, age 67 of a boomslang bite, after making detailed notes on his developing symptoms.   Gregory C. Meyer writes that a death scene in the B-movie classic “The Killer Shrews” was based on the [...]

  2. [...] some extended to mid elevations, while others were more characteristic of high elevations. K.P. Schmidt (1928), also working in Puerto Rico, realized that the distinctions among species were not [...]

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