Saturday, March 28, 2009

An Example of How Science Works From George W. Corner

I got this story first from Garett Hardin's 2nd ed biology textbook. In it George W. Corner tells about his and W. M. Allen's research on progesterone in rabbits to illustrate how science works. Note how the scientists treat their observations, their techniques, how they critique themselves and each other but how they don't give up.

A failure and what it taught.

Willard Allen and I had a
queer experience with our first extracts, from which we learned
something important, so that the story is not only amusing
but useful. The beginning of this tale is that when we started
we followed (as I said before) a hint from the work of Ed-
mund Herrmann, who had obviously produced progestational
proliferation in a few of his experiments without knowing it.
He had used very young rabbits, roughly 8 weeks old. They
react more readily than adults to the estrogen which was the
chief ingredient of his extracts. Since we wanted to follow his
methods closely at first, we used infant rabbits too, and with
them our first successes were obtained. In the spring of 1929
we were all ready to report the first steps in print. The paper
was being written, when it occurred to me that our directions
for extracting the hormone ought to be tried out by a none-
too-good chemist, just to make sure they were foolproof. We
did not want others to think our work could not be repeated,
just because our directions were not clear. It was agreed that
I was a bad enough chemist for the test : if I could make the
extract all by myself, then anybody could. So Allen went on
his vacation and I went back to our extractors and vacuum
stills. In a week I had a batch ready; to my horror it was
ineffectual. I made another batch; it, too, was worthless. I

suppressed the paper and telegraphed for Allen. We decided
that I needed a vacation and that we would look for the
trouble in the fall. In September I made another batch with
Allen watching every step, but not touching the apparatus.
It was no good. What could be wrong.'' Since my laboratory
was sunnier than his, perhaps my hormone was being spoiled
by sunlight. I had a room blacked out and made a batch in
the dark. That failed. Then we remembered that Allen, being
a better chemist than I, usually got his extracts freer of su-
perfluous grease and therefore had to mix them with corn oil
(Mazola) so that he could inject them. Mine were greasy
enough to inject without added oil. Perhaps the corn oil pro-
tected his hormones somehow while mine spoiled. We checked
that idea — another two weeks gone — and that was not the
answer. Then in desperation we made a batch together, side
by side and almost hand in hand, each watching the other. We
divided it into two lots and tested it separately — Allen's
worked ; mine did not ! Eureka, my trouble was in the testing,
not in the cookery.

The explanation will seem so silly that I almost hesitate
to admit what it was. The fact is that rabbits do not respond
well to progesterone until they are about 8 weeks old and
weigh about 800 grams. We did not know this, and our rab-
bits ranged from 600 to 1,200 grams. When we went to the
cages to inject them, Willard Allen's idea of what constitutes
a nice rabbit led him to choose the larger ones, while I must
have had a subconscious preference for the infants. My ex-
tracts had been as good as his all the while, but my rabbits
were insensitive. It is staggering to think how often the success
or failure of research may hang upon such an unimaginable



by George W. Corner
pg 118 to 119

the whole book looks rather fun.

read the whole book online here:

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