by Kenneth W. Krause.
[Notable New Media]
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes frequently to Skeptic as well. He can be contracted at email@example.com.
Science has saved countless lives in strangely uncelebrated ways. How did military doctors first learn to treat shock? Well, that’s another interesting story.
In the early 20th century, Harvard physiologist, Walter Cannon, coined the term “fight-or-flight” following his observations in animal studies that digestive functions were strongly affected by stress. The sympatheric nervous system, he surmised, works in concert with the adrenal glands to modulate body organs duri…ng tough times.
As casualties mounted during WWI, Cannon was asked to figure out why the wounded so often went into shock and died. These soldiers exhibited some of the same symptoms as his beleauguered animal subjects–rapid pulse, dilated pupils, and heavy sweating. He quickly volunteered to treat injured casualties overseas in the Harvard Hospital Unit.
Cannon decided to measure the soldiers’ blood pressure, instead of just their pulse. Shock patients, he discovered, had abnormally low BPs–usually under 90 mmHg. After measuring the concentration of bicarbonate ions in their bloodstreams, he found it similarly lacking. The patients’ normally alkaline blood had become more acidic, and the more acidic it was, the lower the patients’ BPs.
So, to raise their pH levels, Cannon began adminsitering sodium bicarbonate to shock victims. And it worked. Innumerable soldiers were saved before WWI finally came to a grisly end. Later emphasizing how most bodily organs receive dual nervous system inputs that generally oppose one another, he coined another term–“homeostasis.” This dual regulation, he concluded, “is the central problem of physiology,” and thus the physician’s role was to reinforce or restore homeostasis.
University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of molecular biology, Sean B. Carroll, uses this story and others to illustrate a worthy point. Regulation is critical to not just human health, but the health of entire ecosystems as well. Also the author of “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” (one of my all-time favorites), Carroll’s new book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters (Princeton University Press 2016), explains why the overarching logic of the small and familiar also applies to the large and far-flung.