MEETING # 1438
February 18, 1988
Limits of Life
by Charles D. Howell Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public
investigation on the limits of life, used to be mere academic problems to ascertain how
environmental stresses such as extreme of temperature, cause death in different forms of
life. Today life is being limited by insidious penetration of our environment by toxins
created by the chemical revolution. number of example of this are cited, and especial note
is given to the author's former colleague, Dr. Rachel Carson, who was the prophetess of
our current environmental movement.
Biography of the Author
B D. Howell was born in E. Bangor, Pa. in 1910. He was brought up in Brooklyn, S.Y.,
graduated from Oberlin College, in Ohio, and earned the Ph. D. degree from The Johns
Hopkins University, 1937, in zoology. His life-long interest has been in the origin,
development, and regulation of functions of living things. He has done research on
protozoa, earthworms, insects, alligators, dogs and man, covering the fields of genetics,
embryology, physiology and taxonomy. He taught for 45 years in colleges and universities
in the U.S.., retiring in 1977 after 25 years at the University of Redlands. He is a
member of Sigma Xi, a Fellow of the National Public Health Service, and belongs to
several scientific societies. His biography appears in American Men of Science, and Who's
Who in the West. He is now actively engaged in research on insect evolution at the San
Bernardino County Museum.
Limits of Life
by Charles D. Howell
Prophets of doom are
more often ridiculed than followed in their own generation. Perhaps most of them have been
false prophets. Few, like Jeremiah have been canonized. I happen to have known a true
prophet, a prophetess! She was a biology instructor in the evening school of education in
a University where she earned her Masters degree. But when she then applied for admission
into the doctoral program she was turned down.
I was a student there at the time and
inquired of a faculty member involved in the decision, why she was rejected, for we
students had great respect for her. He had what we called a Prussian approach to
scholarship, and replied " there is too much risk accepting a woman for
doctoral work, for women rarely have the creativity that men have". How women have
changed since then!
Twenty years later she wrote a book. Its
thesis was far more earth-shaking than any Ph. D. thesis the professor had sponsored.
It was entitled "Silent Spring" and was by Rachel Carson. It became not only a
best seller, but the pioneer work for the environmental movement. It pointed out that the
by-products of human civilization, such as industrlal~states, automobile exhausts, and
insecticides were leaving behind permanent residues, an unexpected threat to life. She
gained ever increasing fame, and some years later was awarded an Honorary Doctors degree
by the Johns Hopkins University for her creative insights.
By the time she got her degree the shadow
of DDT was hanging heavy over us. By that time her scoffers had aged, and were changing
their minds. By that time a younger generation of scientists was being brought up on her
teaching. I quote one of them who came to the University of Redlands in the 60s, Dr.
Gerald Gates who taught his students, "Man is about to bury himself in his own
garbage." By that time I had come to doubt the ancient philosophy taught me by my
father, "Nature will take care of anything." And by that time we were
recognizing that in the face of geometric human proliferation, Nature was becoming quite
fragile. There were limits to life.
We all face limits of life. Canaries are
very sensitive to noxious gases. Miners carry them with them when going down coal mine
shafts. If the canary shows signs of stress, the miners hightail it for the surface. The
canary dies, but man survives. We all have different limits. Powerful drugs have been
prescribed to kill germs causing human disease: Mercurials, iodine, arsenic, antibiotics,
sulfa drugs, butazolidine. The theory is that the germs will die first, and the drug can
be discontinued before the human expires. We are here because it has worked that way so
We marvel at hot-spring organisms living
at temperatures we could not stand. We marvel at seeds discovered in tombs,
thousands of years old and still capable of germinating. There are some well-known
explanations for these unusual things, They survive because they have much less water in
their cytoplams than we do.
The moat spectacular experiment I did the
first year I was in graduate school, was to construct a freezing chamber which I could
attach to a microscope. I used it to watch living cells of one-celled animals (amoeba and
Paramecium) as I froze them. I saw ice crystals form inside the cells. They
survived until a crystal pierced the cell membrane- then the cell burst, ceasing to exist.
I wondered about the relation of this to the death of humans in the cold.
I never dreamed then, that I would
ever have a chance to work on any organisms bigger than a one-celled animal. But the
opportunity. came unexpectedly after World War II. The American Physiological Society made
it possible for college professors of Science to spend time in up-to-date laboratories and
return with the earned knowledge to enrich their college teaching. I worked with Dr.
Steven N. Norvath in the Research Department of Physiology of the Medical School of
the State University of Iowa. Dr. Norvath had been a classmate of mine in Freshman
Chemistry at Oberlin College.
I chose this appointment because he was
working on the effects of Hypothermia on mammals. That is, effects of low temperature. The
chief work was on dogs on whom we studied the limits of survival, preliminary to doing
similar work on humans in critical surgery.
A graduate student was given the problem
of trying to verify reports of English workers who claimed to have brought the body
temperature of a rat down to the freezing point of water, and still the rat survived. The
student tried the experiment, and his rat didn't survive. Of course the English writers
did not related the details of how their specimen was revived.
This was before the popular knowledge of
CPR (Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation). However, I had had an experience with it that I
could not forget. My mother had suffered a cardiac arrest while sitting at the dinner
table when I was about twelve years old. Our family physician was an able man, and
happened to be with us at the time. He dragged my mother out of her chair onto the floor
and pounded her chest, to our horror. He got her heart beating, and my mother, bruised,
recovered and lived for forty more years.
With this in mind I suggested the
procedure to the graduate student. He wee sure it couldn't work, so I actually did the
first experiment. We literally froze a rat. I removed it from the freezer. With a
rectal thermometer recording its temperature, I gradually rewarmed it, and as the
temperature rose I began to give it forced respiration and heart massage. While it was
still somewhat below normal temperature the rat suddenly gasped, twitched its whiskers,
blinked its eyes, and came to life. We took good care of it, and it survived for further
experiments. Th student took up his abandoned project and got his Ph.D. He is now working
for the Eli Lilly Company as a physiological.
Death in mammals, due to cold, is not the
result of frozen water crystals bursting the cells. It results from a paralysis of the
nervous system in most species, and this occurs long before anything is turned to ice. It
is called cold narcosis, for the animal goes to sleep long before it dies. It is painless,
a process invoked by Eskimo tribes to painlessly terminate the life of enfeebled senior
citizens. They are left in a igloo with food and clothing and blankets as the tribe moves
off to distant hunting grounds. When the tribe returns, many months later, they may not
even locate the igloo.
Cold blooded animals (like unable and
frogs) respond differently to temperature changes, than do warm-blooded mammals and birds.
The cold-blooded animals do not fight temperature changes. They ride with it. When
the atmosphere is cold, their body temperatures match it, but by instinct they know enough
to crawl into a burrow before they become lethargic. The burrow protects them from the
severest cold of the air, and they revive when their normal temperature is
returned. If it is too hot, they likewise crawl into a burrow that may be cooler,
returning to activity when the temperature is again abnormal". Heat torpor is called
estlvation. Their cold torpor is called hibernation, but it is different from mammalian
By contrast mammals fight cold by
shivering and raising their body metabolism providing internal heat to keep up their
normal temperatures. If it is too hot, they perspire, cooling off their blood streams, or
get unto water or mud to cool off.
However one class of warm-blooded animals
hibernate. Hibernators have the ability to survive even though their body temperatures
fall. They do not undergo the kind of cold narcosis referred to above. But they are
immobile. Their nervous systems are not paralyzed, for they will respond to stimuli such
as touching, or even to a lethal cold temperature, by waking up. It may take them
over half a day to lower their temperature to just above freezing, but if stimulated, can
return to normal in four hours. They can remain at the low temperature for months during a
cold winter and revive in the spring-- lean and hungry. All without CPR! This la the
We worked with Pennsylvania Groundhogs
comparing their cardiovascular systems to those of dogs. The groundhogs proved to be able
to stand much more stress, but were so vicious that we were glad to abandon experiments
Some years later I had a sabbatical leave
that took me to Lankenau Hospital,Phlladelphia, branch of the Physiology Department of
Jefferson Medical College. Again I was working with Dr. Norvath, but this time he was
working on effects of heat stress on humane. We had a large well-insulated room full of
electronic devices and means of studying all kinds of human physiology under controlled
heat, humidity, and diet regimes.
At this time I began studies of physiology
of Alligators. I wondered how they might respond to heat stress. So, when a long
experiment on a human subject ended, I reserved the use of the room for my alligator. I
placed my specimen,all wired up, in the hot room and returned to my instrument panel to
study and record the results. However, there were no results, no respiration, no heart
beat. I though the wires had come loose so I spent some time checking all the connections.
Suddenly it dawned on me, that it was not the connections but the alligator that
was the trouble. I rushed into the room and found the Alligator as limp as a rag. We could
not revive it.
With this experiment I gained a greater
respect for a human being who could survive the ordeal of heat stress so well. Who would
expect an alligator accustomed to bask in the hot sun in Florida to succumb to heat before
a man. Of course, in nature, the alligator can take a dip in the water if the heat is too
much. Yes in nature, animals do not purposely expose themselves to stress. They move out
quickly if the environment la not ideal for life. Man too moves. He farms till the soil is
depleted, He has moved on many times in the past.
Some times the environmental changes are
not easily recognized. They are often insidious, hidden, gradually worsening,-leaving\ no
observable evidence of, it. It industry poisons the environment, the noxious activity is
often not discovered till long after the industry ceases to exist there. It they are still
around they fight the identification of the problem, and governments are seldom
equipped to solve it till the situation may be in extremis. Let me cite an
In Japan there are many fishing villages.
One such village is Minimata on a salt-water bay fed by the Minimata River. For food, most
of the villagers depend heavily on fishing in the bay. Up river, a factory provides
minimal wages for some of the villagers. In the recent 50s, social workers discovered a
growing phenomenon--a disproportionate number of feeble-minded children.Seeking an
understanding of this, a doctor discovered that there was also an unusually large
percentage of adults with peculiar mental disorders. Suspecting food poisoning, one doctor
devoted much of his efforts to ascertain the source of the poisoning. He fed cats on fish
from the bay and found they became strangely deranged.
He suspected the rectory, but when the
reason for his inquiries became known, the factory was closed to him. The authorities did
give him numerous false leads, all of which took a great deal of his time.Finally he a
stumbled on mercury as the cause. But when he established it firmly, it had taken him
seventeen years of frustrating work. Naturally the factory fought his conclusions. The
government gave no help till law suits were brought with sufficient proof to require the
Industry to compensate victims. So many natives had fled the village in fear, and so much
cover-up occurred, that it will never be known low many actually suffered. Many had died
of mercury poison, many were too ill to care. But a tremendous knowledge about mercury
poisoning was documented scientifically, so that the disease is known after this village
as Minamata Disease.
A similar outbreak occurred in Canada,
where Indiana living on fish below industrial plants became ill. Japanese medical men,
alerted, visited the area and immediately recognized the symptoms of Minimata disease.
Although the streams and lakes are now marked "Fish but don't eat the fish," etc., the Indians involved are in severe straits. The industry continues, for the
products, paper and plastics are needed by the people in the cities.
Since these disclosures and others,
mercury poisoning has become of world-wide concern. That mercury is a poison has been
known for millennia. The Romans knew it in early Christian times. One punishment for
political enemies was to send them to the mercury mines of Spain, at Almaden. This was
regarded as a sure death sentence. But it was a prolonged one, not as merciful as
cold narcosis of the Eskimos. In Europe people working in hat factories were known to be
queer. Mercury was used in making the felt of hats. So the Mad- Hatter of Alice in
Wonderland was not a myth. Laws were made at the beginning of the 20th century to
prevent mercury poisoning of workers in hat factories.
The effects of chemicals on life are
becomln6 more and more widely recognized. Especially are we concerned,in recent years with
the deterioration of our drinking water supplies. TCE and PCP are contaminating about half
the wells in Midwest and Western U.S. Many of the wells in Redlands have been
closed because of the high levels of TCE. In our case, the TCE seems to have come from the
famous Lockheed Missile Plant in Mentone. How proud we were, 30 years ago, of that plant
that provided one of the solid fuel rocket engines that boosted one of our early rockets.
TCE comes from a solvent used to clean engine parts.
(Lockheed generously gave its property to
the city of Mentone for a school. The school was built, but recently had to be closed when
it was found that the school grounds were contaminated. )
Love Canal at Niagara Falls, N.Y. is now
the classic case of a ghost town on the site of an Industrial Dump. Our local problem in
the Stringfellow Dump site near Riverside. Toxic wastes from this site are spreading in
widening circles, causing much alarm.
A few years ago it was noted that pine
needles on trees in our national forests were falling prematurely. Smog was blamed, and
the situation improved after smog-control devices were installed on automobiles. With the
population still burgeoning, we can only expect the problem to recur in spite of such
Controlling population seems to be an
unattainable goal. Every chamber of commerce in the United States seeks credit for making
the city grow. Growth improves economics, and everyone prospers from growth. But growth
also means more automobiles.
But even worse than smog, may be acid
rain. This appears to be a new culprit in the decline of forests all over the world. For
centuries we have burned peat, wood, coal, and now petroleum products. The increase in
their use is geometric, as is the growth in population. The fumes from this combustion
contain hydrogen sulfide, and oxides of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. All of these, when
washed back to the earth by rain, produce acids. The abundance of these acids in the soil
has become great enough to neutralize the powers of the soil to resist acid. Soil buffers
are being depleted, soils are becoming acidified, and plant life suffers.
Again we see that the philosophy, "Nature can take care of anything" is not working. Man's growth has outrun
Nature's capacity to compensate.
The effects of acid rain have been
particularly documented in Europe. The famous black forest of Germany is being destroyed.
The first evidence was seen in 1970 as pine needles turned yellow while still young, and
trees began dying. Needles on some species are supposed to remain on twigs for four
years.. If needles fall off prematurely, trees suffer denudation and deficient
Some of the great lumber trees of Europe
have a life span of 200 years. They are now dying at 25. In July 1984 it was reported that
98% of silver firs of Germany were affected either by acid rain or smog or both. Also
affected were 65% of the Norway Spruce, 64% of the Beech Trees, and 68% of the oaks. They
are not all dead, but can they recover?
This is frightening. Forest trees are our
greatest renewable resource. They are a mayor source of oxygen production for our
atmosphere, far exceeding grasses in the ability. No wonder Canada is pressing the U.S.A.
to reduce industrial pollution. The damage recorded is not only to economics, but to the
human spirit. Nature uplifts the human spirit, brings men inspiration, and renews his
hopes. To loose these forest resources of beauty is chattering.
In this country and Canada 300,000 Acres
of lakes around the Great Lakes are declared to be vulnerable to acid rain. 70,000 of them
are in a crisis stage. That means that edible fish cannot grow in them. An equal
area in New York State and New England is in similar trouble. The West, once thought to be
immune because of its calcium-rich granite mountains is now beginning to show evidences of
acid rain damage.
In spite of air-pollution controls we are
out of control. High smoke stacks, which protect local areas, still send fumes to distant
areas unsuspecting of the contamination. More smoke filtration and "scrubbers" are needed.
A current morality exists that la a
discredit to our high state of civilization. It is that pollution is criminal only after
legal conviction. If you're not caught it doesn't matter.
Limits of life is no longer a mere
academic problem for graduate students enlightenment. Limitations are being toured on us
dally, without our consent, by the consequences of tremendous growth of human activity.
Who will devise for us a philosophy of a no-growth society. How could we survive
economically without growth? How could we satisfy the human desire for creativity without
an accompanying growth? What Joy could Chambers of Commerce get from their cities if they
did not grow -- all of them?
Is the biblical "end of the
world" to be inflicted on man by man himself? Will it come by over-destruction of our
green world of trees and forests? Will it come by coating too much of our fertile valleys
with houses and concrete? Where will we find room for our 21st century garbage
dumps? and sludge piles? Who will farm our lands if our young people consider it beneath
their station? How can we have over-population without over-pollution?
Man fighting man for space -
man drowning in his own pollution. These! may be the Armageddon of the Book of Revelations
if we do not listen to the gentle prophetess, RACHEL CARSON.