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Naturally Selected

Charles Darwin (1809–1882), a young graduate from the University of Cambridge, almost didn’t get to go on the 1831 voyage of the HMS Beagle, the five-year voyage that provided the basis for Darwin’s historic Origin of Species. Initially, the ship’s captain wanted to reject him based on the shape of his nose. It seems Captain Fitz- Roy judged a man’s character by his profile, and Darwin’s nose just didn’t indicate “sufficient energy and determination.” Also, Darwin’s father thought the trip was a

frivolous attempt to avoid getting a real job (like joining the clergy). What to do? A three-day test voyage with the captain and a well-worded letter from Darwin’s uncle soon removed the barriers, and Darwin was on his way.

 

 

Aspirin and the Willow

It’s a common belief that aspirin is found in the bark of willow trees. It’s not! A related compound called salicin does indeed occur in willow bark, thereby explaining the traditional use of the bark as a medication. But salicin is irritating to the stomach, a problem that prompted the Bayer company to look for an alternative. When one of their chemists synthesized acetyl salicylic acid in 1898, he found it to be a great improvement over other salicylates—a triumph of chemistry over nature! Aspirin has

since been found to do much more than alleviate pain. It’s an excellent anti-inflammatory substance, as many arthritis patients will vouch. ASA, as it is commonly known, also has an anticoagulant, or blood-thinning, effect, which can reduce the risk of heart attacks. In fact, today more aspirin is consumed as a heart-attack preventer (generally in doses of about 80 mg a day) than as a painkiller!

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Bad Milk

One of the unfortunate victims of bad milk was Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died of milk sickness in 1818. The sickness, which actually wiped out many pioneers, had nothing to do with bacteria and everything to do with a cow’s diet. When the animals grazed on a plant called snakeroot, people who drank their milk got sick and often died. A naturally occurring substance in the milk called tremetone was converted by human body enzymes into a highly toxic substance.

When chemists linked milk sickness to snakeroot early in the 20th century, farmers were counseled to rid their fields of the plant, and thus milk sickness was eliminated.