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Allan Walker Blair (1900–1948) was a professor at the University of Alabama's medical school who is best known for allowing himself to be bitten by a black widow spider in order to investigate the toxicity of its venom in humans. As a result of the experiment he was hospitalized for two days, but later made a full recovery. The test convinced skeptics of the time who thought that the black widow's venom might not be dangerous to humans.
The front-page headlines of the November 16, 1933, edition of the Tuscaloosa News read, "U. Of A. Professor Lets Spider Bite Him, Suffers 3 Days Agony." The physicians who attended to him praised him for "his courage but also for his persistence and skill in carrying on his investigation so long to such a successful conclusion."
"Blair chronicled the bite's effects on his body for two hours, until he could write no more. And then his assistants took over for the remaining two days."
According to the September 12, 1942, edition of The New Yorker, the results of his experiment were published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, December, 1934, issue. It was written by Samuel Hopkins Adams ["A Reporter at Large - Notes on an Unpleasant Female"] that Dr. Blair conducted the experiment, "with a view to providing an opportunity for complete scientific observation."
In 1933, many disagreed as to whether a Black Widow spider bite actually caused the symptoms reported. Until then, only a few tests had been completed and they lacked validity for various reasons. Further testing ensured that no other factors influenced the findings, as a true experiment must be conducted governed by strict controls. Most importantly, findings of tests must be replicable.
Dr. Blair's methodology was certainly different from other experiments conducted in this time and region. In 1932, the infamous "The Tuskegee Syphilis Study" started in Alabama. Conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, poor African-Americans who had contracted syphilis were left untreated in order to study the effect of this over time on participants who were never told of the true nature of their symptoms.
The experiment was "named one of the top ten human interest stories of 1933."
In a Wall Street Journal article, Alex Boese stated, "A fellow entomologist had conducted the same self-experiment 12 years earlier."
In order to achieve a scientifically true effect, the findings must be that "which can be regularly reproduced by anyone who carries out the appropriate experiment in the way prescribed."
Dr. Blair was hoping to determine whether being bitten provided victims with any protection from the effects of a second bite. Unfortunately, the first bite proved so painful he chose not to place himself in the same position twice. His decision not to repeat the test may also have been influenced by the fact he had a wife and young family.
According to a source quoted in Alex Boese's article, the physician in attendance had never before witnessed, "more abject pain manifested in any other medical or surgical condition."
After teaching pathology at the University of Alabama [1929-34], he studied surgery at the Winnipeg General Hospital in Manitoba, Canada [1934-35].
He visited cancer treatment centers in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and France in 1936-37.
The Allan Blair Cancer Center in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada is named in honour of this doctor.
The experiment is one of several featured in a book entitled Electrified Sheep. The author of this, Alex Boese, has produced a list of the top ten strangest self-experiments ever conducted. According to this, it was rated as being in fifth place overall.
An Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan article notes that Allan Walker Blair was born in Brussels, Ontario. His family moved to Regina when he was 11. He earned a BA from the University of Saskatchewan and an MD CM degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 1928.
Allan Blair is a descendent of Robert Blair and Lady Rebecca Jane (née Forrester). Robert immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1821 and his wife and five children followed a year later. They purchased a farm in the Ottawa valley region of Ontario.
According to the research conducted by Mildred Blair Hawkins in her book about the Blairs, Allan is related to the Blairs of Scotland. According to the Blair Heraldry, there are two branches, the Blairs of Balthayock and the Blairs of Blair. It is debated whether their earliest ancestor was one and the same.
Allan Blair's father was George Frederick Blair KC. George was appointed city solicitor for Regina in 1914 and received his King's Counsel designation in 1917. In 1924, George defended the rights of a Chinese businessman to obtain a permit to hire white women. This conflicted with a law known then as the "White Woman's Labour Law." Blair argued that the right to hire workers should be based on character, not race. Many in society at the time did not agree. At the time, the laws of Canada and the province discriminated against the Chinese, and other minorities. This case was included in a book written by Constance Backhouse, entitled Colour Coded - A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900—1950.
- Grice, Gordon (1998). "Bold Type: Excerpt by Gordon Grice". The Red Hourglass. Delacorte Press.
- "Professor v. Spider". Time. 1933-11-27.
- Backhouse, Constance (1999). "Bold Type:". Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900–1950. The Osgoode Society.
- Boese, Alex (June 8, 2012). "The Pleasures of Suffering for Science". Life and Culture. The Wall Street Journal.
- Oliver, Mike (June 22, 2015). "How a UA doctor allowed a black widow spider to bite his finger for science". Alabama Spiders. Alabama Media Groupl.