The Worst Jobs of the Past

Looking back at miserable work experiences in science

Bad Jobs Remembered: Developing Photographic Plates of Astronomical Images

THE BACKGROUND Green’s job as a grad student working at Palomar Observatory was to develop images of the night sky made on glass plates with unpolished edges. Sleep-deprived from the previous night’s shoot, he often cut himself as he slid the plates into a diluted acid bath. THE EXPERIENCE “If you have [ever had] little cuts, and you’re working with lemon juice, you know what it’s like.” Richard Green Director, Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson

Bad Jobs Remembered: Overseeing the Killing of Frogs

THE BACKGROUND As an assistant to an introductory biology class at Harvard, he directed students to insert a pin through the base of a frog’s cranium and wiggle it to destroy the brain. Then they put acid on the frog’s skin and the animal scratched itself, demonstrating that reflexes persist after death. Though frogs are routinely killed for student dissections, Eisner objected to killing them to prove a “relatively little point.” As he recalls, students did not use anesthetic, because doing so would have silenced the animals’ reflexes. THE EXPERIENCE “The students weren’t very good at it, so they were missing the brain, and the needle would come out some other place.” Thomas Eisner Director, The Cornell Institute For Research In Chemical Ecology

Bad Jobs Remembered: Collecting Worms from Cattle Intestines

THE BACKGROUND While a grad student at the University of Chicago, Rowland participated in a Museum of Science and Industry project to create a cornerstone containing specimens of various organisms, to be sealed in 1952 and opened far in the future. To gather samples, Rowland worked in a slaughterhouse, overseeing a machine that pressed out worms and other contents from cattle intestines; a job hazard was being sprayed by waste. “It wasn’t a place where you’d want to spend a lot of time,” he recalls. THE EXPERIENCE “There has to be an open end [of the intestine], where the waste gets squeezed out. But if both ends get through the roller before the middle part, then that part doesn’t get squeezed out, it just gets cramped down until finally the casing breaks loose. And that’s when it explodes.” F. Sherwood Rowland University Of California, Irvine Winner Of The Nobel Prize In Chemistry, 1995

Yellow Fever Sampler

Pre-med student Stubbins Ffirth (1784-1820) ate, drank, and breathed the blood, urine and vomit of yellow-fever victims (he also dropped the fluids into his eyes and worked them into cuts on his skin). He didn’t get sick — the patients were in a late, uncontagious stage — so he erroneously decided the disease’s cause lurked elsewhere.

Frustrated Theorist

Physician Robert Mayer (1814-1878) conceived the first law of thermodynamics but got no credit because he was unable to express it mathematically. Shattered, he leapt out a window, but survived.

Radiation Pioneer

Marie Curie (1867-1934), who won a Nobel Prize in 1911 for discovering polonium and radium, suffered crippling pain, anemia, and cataracts from exposure to those radioactive elements. She died from leukemia, also caused by radiation exposure.

Concentration Camp Coroner

Hungarian pathologist Miklos Nyiszli (1901-1956) survived Auschwitz by assisting Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Nyiszli’s job was to autopsy fellow Jewish prisoners after they had been experimented upon and executed. Once freed, he never lifted a scalpel again.

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Which of the Worst Jobs do you think is the worst? And what was the worst job you ever had? Read all about the worst jobs in science: Worst Jobs in Science 2009 The Worst Jobs of the Future The Worst Jobs of the Past