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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Published May 10, 2013 12:15 PM by Michael Jones

There’s a scene in the 60s-era AMC series “Mad Men” that involves a pregnant woman smoking and drinking while her friend’s child runs around with a dry cleaning bag over her head. All of this happens in the space of about a minute, and there are so many things done wrong during that time that, by today’s standards, you can’t help but wonder how anyone even managed to survive the 1960s unscathed. A recent and somewhat horrifying news briefing from Dark Daily took us on a similarly cringe-inducing trip down memory lane to the days of mouth pipetting.   

Yes, you read that correctly -- and it’s exactly what it sounds like.  According to the news briefing, mouth pipetting was a common practice up until the first mechanically adjustable pipetting came into the market in the 1970s. The process functions on the same science that you probably utilized as a kid, right before you fired Dr. Pepper at your sister’s face with the straws at chain restaurants. Sucking in liquid and holding it in, you used the suction so that you could move the straw around without anything coming out.  It was just like that – only, you know, with diseases and a pipette.

Feeling better about your lab’s safety regulations yet?

Obviously, there were some flaws in the practice.  The Dark Daily piece noted the first recorded case of accidental infection was in 1893, “when a physician accidentally sucked a culture of typhoid bacilli into his mouth.”  It also chronicled some of the comments on the original post from “Body Horrors,” the accurately-named blog from Discover Magazine, in which people shared stories about mouth pipetting.  One commenter noted on one of her own experiences, where she was startled by the phone ringing and accidently “gulped” – which, among other things, means office pranks back then must have been pretty dicey. You can read more of the comments in the Dark Daily briefing or on the original blog post by Rebecca Kreston.

Feeling queasy yet? Because it’s not even over – the scariest part of these articles isn’t that people subjected their mouths to potentially dangerous specimens, or that it took almost 70 years to stop doing it in the US (for the most part) after the initial accident – it’s that it’s still going on.  Both articles noted that, in developing nations, mouth pipetting is still in practice.  Right here in the US, the Discover blog cited instances as recent as 1998. Enjoy your lunch!

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