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George Mines and the Impermanence of Knowledge

George Mines

It was a chilly Fall morning in Montreal. A Saturday, the campus of McGill University was quiet. Students, not much different in 1914 from those of today, were sleeping off their Friday night activities. A cleaning woman entered the Physiology Laboratory to dust the glassware and wash the floors. As she turned a corner she was startled to see a young dark-haired man, sitting in a chair. She recognized Professor Mines, the handsome English scientist whom she had often seen working in the laboratory at odd hours. He appeared to be sleeping. His shirt was open and a strange apparatus was strapped to his chest. Rubber tubing stretched from this apparatus to a table filled with equipment next to him. A smoked paper drum rotated slowly. The needle of the drum was motionless, then suddenly jumped. Startled, she let out a little gasp. “Professor, Professor,” she called out. “Are you alright?” She noted he looked very pale, deathly so. She touched his hand. It was cold.

She ran to get help. The police took Professor George Mines to the hospital. There he briefly regained consciousness, but not long enough for him to explain what had happened. He died later that day. He was 29 years old. During his brief life, he used animal models to describe the physiology of reentry in the heart. He described the mechanism of supraventricular tachycardia in Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome long before that syndrome was described. He used a telegraph key to deliver timed electrical shocks to rabbit hearts, inducing ventricular fibrillation which he described without the benefit of an electrocardiogram. He thus was the first to report the existence of the ventricular vulnerable period. Despite all this amazing work, much of what he discovered was little noted at the time, until “rediscovered” by later researchers.

It seems likely that he was the first to induce arrhythmias in a human, long before the field of clinical cardiac electrophysiology. Unfortunately that human was himself, and the result was his own death.

The published papers of George Mines are fascinating to read. His very primitive equipment by today’s standards was more than compensated for by his remarkable ingenuity and keen powers of observation and reasoning.  He described the relationships between conduction velocity and refractoriness in reentry, the existence of an excitable gap, and deduced the reentrant nature of ventricular fibrillation. In one memorable experiment he cut fibrillating tissue into larger and larger loops until he was left with just one circulating wavefront. Amazing stuff! What more would he have accomplished had his life not been cut short?

Back in the days before the Internet, I used to keep photocopies of medical articles in a file cabinet (actually several large file cabinets). In those days of academia I enjoyed going to the stacks of the medical library and randomly reading articles from old bound journals, some dating back to the 19th century.  I learned a lot.  One thing I learned was that science has a problem with collective amnesia.  Discoveries are often forgotten or ignored, only to be rediscovered years later.

Nowadays everything is online. Or is it? Recently I wanted to look up Bazett’s original article on correcting the QT interval for heart rate. It was published in Heart in 1920 (Bazett HC. (1920). “An analysis of the time-relations of electrocardiograms”. Heart (7): 353–370.) These old volumes of Heart have not been digitized and are not online. Such a famous article though is surely reprinted? Indeed it is, on the Wiley Online Library site. I can get a copy of the PDF for $38. Absurd! An article from 1920 costs $38!

Here we see the bitrot of science, the impermanence of knowledge. On the one hand, modern scientific research is largely hidden behind a paywall, so that the poor (in the financial sense) reader must rely on abstracts, news reports, online sites such as Medscape, and presentations at medical meetings to keep up-to-date, instead of a careful reading of research methods and results. On the other hand, our precious scientific heritage, the published papers of previous generations, remains largely undigitized, residing in the dusty stacks of libraries, increasingly ignored by newer generations to whom nothing matters if it is not online. There are some exceptions. The Journal of Physiology has digitized all of its content back to Volume 1 from 1878. But most publishers haven’t bothered doing this.

At least half of early films have been lost. Early TV archives, like those of Dr. Who were routinely destroyed or copied over, resulting in loss of these shows forever. The situation is not so dire with old scientific research. The libraries will remain for a long time, and paper has a good half-life. But the beautiful work of George Mines and those like him, the true pioneers of medicine, will remain largely obscure to future generations unless that work is available online.

Perhaps some portion of the $38 for a PDF copy of a 1920 article could go to that cause.