A blood and thunder account of the birth of our scientific age

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
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They don’t do scientific experiments like they used to.

A few hundred years ago, before every pound and penny spent on research had to be justified, those wanting to push the boundaries of human knowledge and scientific progress did things in their own way.

So there were men like Thomas Coxe, who back in 1666 was deliberating the benefits of blood transfusion. To test his theories he decided to procure a dog, which he described unflatteringly as “an old mongrel, all over-run with the mange”. Having fed it up a little, he began transfusing its blood into the veins of a healthy spaniel.

The result? After 10 days, there had been no change in the healthy dog, the mangy animal was “perfectly cured” and medicine took yet another step forward. The details of what was undoubtedly one of the first blood transfusions is just one of around 60,000 historic scientific papers which have this week gone online for the first time.

Originally published in the less than gripping sounding, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the journal was the first ever to be peer-reviewed and its foundation in 1665 is now widely recognised as one of the most pivotal moments in the scientific revolution.

Treasures in the archive include Isaac Newton’s first published scientific paper, geological work by a young Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin’s celebrated account of his famous electrical kite experiment, which helped determine that lightning was in fact electricity.

However, for all the landmark experiments contained within the archives, it’s the previously overlooked endeavours of countless scientific enthusiasts which make the papers such a treasure trove.

Aside from Mr Coxe, there is Dr Wallis, from Oxford, who wrote to inform readers in 1665 of a particularly unfortunate boating accident. Two students, who had the bad luck to be out on the river during a particularly violent thunder storm had, he said, been struck by lightning.

One survived, but the other was not so lucky and ended up on Dr Wallis’ autopsy table where he noted there were no obvious scars, aside from a series of black marks on his chest, which made him look as “if he had been seared by a hot iron” and the fact the buttons on his doublet had been blown off.

That same year, there was also a report intriguingly entitled An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf. Apparently a butcher cut open a fatted cow to find inside a calf, which not only had no joints in its hind legs, but appeared to have grown three tongues.

The stuff of urban myths perhaps, but the journal soon gained a reputation for rigorous scientific investigation and despite early setbacks, including plague, the Great Fire of London and the imprisonment of its first editor Henry Oldenburg on suspicion of spying, it continued to thrive

Sir Thomas Huxley, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote in 1870 of the journal: “If all the books in the world, except the Philosophical Transactions were to be destroyed, it is safe to say the foundations of physical science would remain unshaken and the vast intellectual progress of the last two centuries would be largely, though incompletely, recorded.”

Monstrous calves and lightning- hit students aside, he was probably right.

To access the archives go to www.royalsociety.org