As a 20-year-old graduate, studying at evening classes, it was suggested that I work for a PhD on the subject of ‘the nitrogen metabolism of the woodlouse’. How does a bug living in dry cellulose obtain the nitrogen required for its protein?
I have always enjoyed scientific puzzles. My first publication, in the journal Nature, was on a weird degenerate arthropod that lives in the gut of mussels. My next publication was on how fish manage to extract sufficient oxygen from water – I found they hyperventilated to a greater extent than a mountaineer at the top of Everest.
However, I could not see my work on the louse earning me a Nobel Prize, so I changed direction and took up medicine. There is a tendency today to belittle clinical research, but I believe that it is the seed corn of medical science. It was the puzzles that occurred while treating patients that grabbed my interest.
When a patient who had received a curare-like drug failed to respond to the poison’s antidote, it started me off on a study into the body’s chemical messengers and the way they work. This led to the realisation that because the various functions of the body have developed at different times, during the millions of years of their evolution, the receptors controlling these functions have small differences in their makeup allowing them to respond in different ways.
Without these changes to this messenger system, evolution would have stalled. It was this realisation that led me to write the book Poison Arrows, which traces the way we have learned about the importance of nature’s chemical messengers, and the role that these play in the development of animal life.
Stanley Feldman is author of Poison Arrows: The Amazing Story of how Prozac and Anaesthetics were Developed from Deadly Jungle Poison Darts (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and coeditor of Panic Nation: Exposing the Lies We’re Told About Food and Health (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).