Risky Business

By Medical Discovery News

Nov. 17, 2012

Most people don’t realize modern scientists make considerable sacrifices. It takes years of education and training, plus countless hours in the lab and late nights in front of the computer all for relatively modest pay. But most wouldn’t trade any of it to be in the shoes of scientists from years past.

The annals of history recount numerous scientists who were persecuted for their personal or professional beliefs. They endured punishments ranging from house arrest to chemical castration to torture and death.

One major figure is a highly educated scientist known in the West simply as Rhazes. Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī lived in what is now Iran between 860 and 932. Persia was the cultural, literary, and scientific leader of the time, and Rhazes was regarded in Europe as one of the 15 great sources of knowledge. Western physicians referred to his medical texts until the rise of modern medicine in the 1800s. Yet Rhazes was persecuted for his open mindedness and belief that religious fanaticism breeds war and hatred. He died a pauper at the age of 90.

Among history’s scientific giants is Galileo Galilei, born in 1564 in Pisa. He studied math and used the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa to disprove Aristotle’s dogma that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Then he began inventing, first the thermometer, then an early calculator, and after hearing about a new invention called a telescope proceeded to make one without ever having seen it.

Eventually he made a 30-power telescope, which he used to identify Jupiter’s moons. That’s also when he began to think Earth was not the center of the universe, and eventually wrote in support of Copernicus’s theory that Earth rotates around the sun. When denounced by a priest, Galileo composed an open letter on the irrelevance of the Bible in scientific arguments. The Catholic Church sentenced him to a lifetime of house arrest.

The long list of persecuted scientists includes Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician in the 16th century who discovered pulmonary circulation. He fled the Spanish Inquisition only to be arrested and burned alive by the Protestant Inquisition in Switzerland.

Gerhard Domagk was a German pathologist and bacteriologist who discovered the first commercially available antibiotic, sulfonamide. The Nazi regime arrested him and forced him to refuse a Nobel Prize.

Even Albert Einstein was a victim. His theory of relativity and pacifist stance brought him to Adlof Hitler’s attention in 1933. Fortunately, Einstein was in California when the Nazis stripped him of his membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences, seized his properties, and held a public burning of his books.

Without the courage of these early scientists, perhaps some of the greatest discoveries would have had to wait. Learning what they endured highlights the importance of study and research in an intellectually open society.

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