OPINION

OLD NEWS: In 1923, UA’s Professor Baerg made a black widow spider bite his hand, for science

William J. Baerg (1885-1980) (Democrat-Gazette illustration/Celia Storey)
William J. Baerg (1885-1980) (Democrat-Gazette illustration/Celia Storey)


On the first of December a century ago, the Arkansas Gazette ran quite an intriguing little story atop Page 1.

The headline: "Tries Out Effect of Bite by Spider"

Somebody who wanted to know what being bitten by a certain spider would do to him had let that spider bite him.

Even more wonderful, it was an Arkansas spider — specifically, a black widow found near Fayetteville. And the specific person involved in the story was the head of the University of Arkansas entomology department.

William J. Baerg was not some rash kook. Before subjecting his left hand to spider fangs he first persuaded two other black widows to bite two white rats. He saw the rats hump up and look awfully sick, possibly even convulsive; but after about 10 hours they recovered.

He then made the spiders bite them three more times, and each time, the rats looked less and less distressed.

But to understand why he would then imagine it possible that black widows did not deserve their reputation as seriously dangerous to humans, know that — before Baerg did his bite test in July 1923 — nobody had invited black widows to bite them in a scientifically motivated, systematic way so as to create documentary proof of the effects on a man of Latrodectus mactans' injectable venom. The risk was merely anecdotal at that point.

Furthermore, as the Gazette reminded its readers: "Two years ago Professor Baerg attracted wide attention by permitting a tarantula to bite him, without, however, incurring [any] serious harm."

Already this man Baerg (pronounced "Berg") had demonstrated that the popularly feared American tarantula did not deserve its reputation. Imaginations foisted all sorts of fictional monster abilities upon the big hairy dear, and Baerg had proved them wrong. He knew for a fact that Arkansas tarantulas make sweet pets.

Further, his survey of arachnological and medical entomological literature found conflicting opinions of the black widow spider based on hearsay and circumstantial evidence. One fellow had pulled dried venom from dead spiders, diluting and injecting it into various unfortunate animals and killing them all; but that didn't indicate what a natural bite might do.

On July 9, 1923, Baerg goaded a black widow to nip his finger but prevented the fangs from lingering. Nothing dire followed. So, the next day, he let the spider bite him long enough to inject venom. Here's a bit of his account of what came next:

"From the point of view of the experimenter, the results were all that could be desired; from the subject's point of view, they were slightly severe.

"The test was made at 8:25 a.m. The sensation produced by the fangs penetrating the skin was rather slight; but gradually, as the poison was injected, the sensation became painful, sharp and piercing."

The site soon went from white as a bee sting to very red, and it swelled. "In about 15 minutes an aching pain developed in the tendons of the left shoulder. In a half an hour, the arm felt lame and the aching was more marked."

By 10:25, muscle pain extended to his chest. And then to his hips. By 11, his legs hurt. He dabbed the bite with dilute ammonia, to no effect. His doctor suggested he might want to go to bed, which he did at 12:20 p.m.

"At this time the pain in the hips was very severe, the chest felt cramped; breathing and speech were rather forced and irregular.

"In view of the rapidly developing symptoms, it seemed best to go to the hospital."

For two days his only relief was very hot baths. His hand was wrapped in a cloth treated with potassium permanganate and so it didn't get the pleasure of the first bath; and then that night his poor hand was subjected to urgent attempts to draw the poison from the wound.

The permanganate wrap was renewed frequently, and an electric oven, "as hot as I could bear, was placed over my hand. This was left on for an hour or two, and then kept off an hour. The effort was all in vain, and incidentally caused much pain."

He didn't sleep. He writhed. A hot bath felt good in the morning, but pain returned after a half hour. In the evening July 11, he was able to sip oyster soup. But he suffered delirium. His brief bouts of sleep were nightmares involving — spiders.

July 12 brought improvements, sleep and energy for reading. On July 13, he returned to work: "A feeling of wretchedness was more or less in evidence, but this did not seriously interfere."

All of that led to this cheerful conclusion:

"The experience had some unpleasant features in it; yet it had also its attractive features. The symptoms were all new to me, and each change presented a surprise. The unpleasant features were many times compensated for by the fact that I had satisfied my curiosity regarding the other of the two poisonous spiders of America."

Baerg detailed his approach and results in the December 1923 issue of The Scientific Monthly. A century later, we don't even toy with the idea of testing black widows on ourselves, but we don't have to. He did it for us, for all of us. For humanity.

Reading his report is fun and informative. Since childhood I have thought that black widows resided mostly above, beside and in the rusted cans full of old nails and tetanus stored in backyard tool sheds; but Baerg says:

"In the Ozark region of Arkansas the Black Widow may be commonly found under stones. During normal seasons, it may be anywhere under stones that are not often disturbed. During a dry season these spiders seek shelter under stones in a dry creek bed or near a stream. At such a time they are also commonly found in the housing of water meters and probably in basements of houses."

If this much were all there was to know about the career of William Baerg, he still would qualify as a Most Interesting Arkansan.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE

Historian Tom Dillard wrote a column about Baerg in 2004. From Dillard we know the J in William J. Baerg stood for nothing: Baerg added it to dress up the single name his parents provided.

They were German Mennonites who immigrated to Kansas from Ukraine in 1874 with other Mennonites, and also tools and a wagon Baerg's father, John, a blacksmith, made. The German-speaking family labored as field hands until they acquired land.

Born in a sod house in 1885, he was the sixth of seven children. "Baerg's youth was full of hard work and strict parental discipline that involved periodic beatings, preceded by fervent prayer," Dillard writes.

SPIDER MAN

Baerg taught at UA for 31 years, during which he became a husband and father, published books and many papers, helped establish the state Plant Board, educated farmers on topics from beekeeping to arsenical pesticides; and he contributed to ornithology with his reference book "Birds of Arkansas."

A popular professor, he made students hold tarantulas while regaling them with stories. They called him Spider Man.

After retiring, he researched spiders of the West Indies in Jamaica as a Fulbright scholar in 1951 and '52; and as a Guggenheim fellow in 1954 and '55, he studied the life histories of tarantulas and scorpions in Mexico. (Guggenheim has a handsome photo of him on its website.)

In 1969 or so he passed his two 25-year-old female tarantulas to a former student, biologist William P. Beck.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes that at 85 Baerg volunteered to be a human guinea pig for tests of venom from the yellow sac spider, but the project director declined his offer. The disappointment didn't affect his health: Baerg lived another decade.

He died in 1980 and is buried in Fairview Memorial Gardens in Fayetteville.

Brilliant man.

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