Horse Soldiers, Corb Lund, and science dogs

This week, I’ve strayed a little from the usual rock leanings that we have here at Song of Week. I’ve highlighted some great folk music in the past but have never quite made it into country territory. Corb Lund‘s Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier, the title track from his 2007 album, is completely worth the detour. I really don’t care how anyone wants to classify this song, it’s an intense, lyrically dense and literate piece of song craft. As reviewers have noted about his music generally, you start out thinking you might not like it, maybe it’s too country, but before you know it you’re totally absorbed and leaning in to try to make out every word. In this one in particular, the Alberta roots music legend takes us on an emotional and powerful tour of armed human conflict through the eyes of the horses that almost always accompany them and often fall victim to them. It’s a powerful history lesson on the culture of war, though hardly a person is mentioned.

Listening to it a few times in a row recently (as I usually do with this song) got me thinking about science. What animal is at our side and part of our conflicts and victories to such a degree that a scientific history told from its perspective would be such a rich and thorough one? There are surely several candidates, but to me it falls to the faithful canine. Dogs and people have a long shared history, and a recent study suggesting that their relationship with us has influenced not only their appearance and personalities but even gone as deep as the genes that guide their digestive processes.

Dogs also have a long history as part of science. They have been companions, inspirations and experimental subjects. In her terrific and compelling account of the history of blood transfusions, Blood Work, Holly Tucker deals in a forthright manner with the many dogs that were early donors and recipients, most not meeting very pleasant ends. One of the happier accounts is from France in the 1660s when Jean-Baptiste Denis, along with surgeon Paul Emmerez, were trying to repeat and improve on Christopher Wren’s experiments in England.

“In front of a group of carefully selected supporters, Denis and Emmerez embarked on their trial. They began by muzzling the dogs to ‘keep them from crying’ and then positioned the animals head to foot, so that the thigh of the recipient almost touched the neck of the donor. This was a two-man job.” (p. 71)

Given that cutting my dogs’ nails is a two-person job, I can only imagine that two very dextrous and strong people were required to strap them down for anesthetic-free surgery. Things seem to have gone reasonably well in this case and the follow-up description shows that these dogs were not only subjects but also pets.

“The spaniel who had unwillingly donated blood remained weak. It only had enough energy to crumple into a corner of the room. The other dog was ‘vigorous’ and attempted to scratch off its muzzle. It jumped down from the table, shook itself, and stumbled over to its owner for treats and pats when called.” (p. 72)

Closer to home (for me anyway) is the story of Frederick Banting and Charles Best using dogs as the test patients for their procedure designed to isolate insulin and treat diabetes. They would tie off  a dog’s pancreas, cutting the blood supply, and wait for it to begin to break down. They would then remove the pancreas and freeze it with salt then grind and filter it. They used the concentrate to treat other dogs who had become forced diabetics when their own pancreases were removed. A little dog name Marjorie became the poster-patient for the discover when they kept her alive for more than a month. Go check out the photos: she was very sweet looking.

Even Sir Isaac Newton has a (likely apocryphal) dog story associated with him. In the 19th century a story started to appear about a little dog named Diamond who accidentally ruined several important papers. Here it is described in David Brewster’s (1833) The Life of Sir Isaac Newton:

While he was attending divine service in a winter morning, he had left in his study a favourite little dog called Diamond. Upon returning from chapel he found that it had overturned a lighted taper on his desk, which set first to several papers on which he had recorded the result of some optical experiments. These papers are said to have contained the labours of many years, and it has been stated that when Mr. Newton perceived the magnitude of his loss, he exclaimed, “Oh, Diamond, Diamond, little do you know the mischief you have done to me!” It is a curious circumstance that Newton never refers to the experiments which he is said to have lost on this occasion, and his nephew, Mr. Conduit, makes no allusion to the event itself. The distress, however the distress which it occasioned is said to have been so deep as to affect even the powers of his understanding.

So, my vote is for dogs. They’ve slumbered under numerous desks while science is done, suffered as test subjects and surprised researchers by surviving. There is surely a deep and moving history to be told. So if Corb Lund ever wants another topic for a sweeping historical epic, I’m totally going to suggest dogs in science. Never hurts to ask, right?


And do check out Holly’s great book:

Tucker, H. (2011). Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution. W.W. Norton and Company.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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