Dad stings son…. For Science!

It is Day 4 in our journey of discovering Doctors & Scientists Who Self-Experimented. Some of them did it for the advancement of science, some to satisfy their own passion & curiosity for the subject and a few because they were just crazy. Today we will discover a man who so badly wanted to prove his theories right, that he did not even hesitate to experiment on  his young son along with himself. Yes! Both of them suffered together and lived to tell the story.

Dr Jack Handyside Barnes was born in 1922. He was a military commando who went onto become very good general practioner. Today, Barnes is known for his discovery that a thumbnail-sized, nearly invisible, four-tentacle box jellyfish could cause Irukandji syndrome.

So what exactly is Irukandji syndrome? Well, don’t worry I would not go on to give you a painful description of some medical condition. Swimmers in Queensland were frequently getting bitten by unknown, invisible creatures for years ending up with terrible symptoms since 1922. It was Hugo Flecker who called it “Irukandji syndrome” in 1952

The name Irukandji has been chosen in the absence of knowledge of the identity of the offending object and of any distinctive character amongst the symptoms. It is the name of an aboriginal tribe which formerly inhabited the coastal region between the Mowbray River to the north and the Trinity Inlet around Cairns to the south. Most of the recorded victims were stung in this region, and although the injury is not limited to this area… no more appropriate geographical name can be found at present — Hugo Flecker, 1952

Hugo Flecker died in 1957(No, not due to Irukandji syndrome) and our man Jack Barnes was appointed to continue his investigations. He tried numerous methods to find the source of the stings but was not successful. However after observing the victims he came to some conclusions –

  1. The causative agent must be small, because victims were often only partially submerged in sea water or suffered stings when water was splashed on them.
  2. It must also be colourless and transparent because no one could see it!
  3. They had to be small because though they were invisible, multiple bites were seen on the victims.
  4. They were fast because they were nowhere to be seen after the sting.

Finally Barnes decided that the only way he could solve the mystery was if he went into the water and found out the cause himself.

On 10 December 1961, soon after the report of cases of Irukandji syndrome from the same area, Barnes with his 9 year old son Nicholas and a helper went deep sea diving and identified two specimens of a species of jellyfish. They managed to catch a thumb nail sized jellyfish attached to another fish which was actually noticed by his helper. Barnes managed to separate the two. Now having identified his culprit, he had to prove his theory right. So what do you imagine he did?

Here’s what he wrote-

The first Carybdeid was applied to an adult (J.B.), and to a boy, aged nine years (N.B.). A robust young life-saver (C.R.) volunteered to test the second specimen, of similar size to the first – Barnes, 1964.


Yes, you guessed it right. J.B is Jack Barnes himself, N.B is his 9 year old son Nicholas Barnes and C.R was the helper who volunteered to get stung. Not only did he let the jellyfish sting him but also his assistant and his 9 year old son!

He continued to write his descriptions of the events that unfolded –

The lad reported mild abdominal pain twelve minutes after being stung…

As systemic effects became manifest, subjects were seized with a remarkable restlessness, and were in constant movement, stamping about aimlessly winging their arms, flexing and extending their bodies, and generally twisting and writhing…

… muscle groups in tonic contraction, little short of spasm… and the volunteers adopted a stance which I can best liken to that of an infant with a full nappy…

All had abdominal and back pain, pain in the anterior chest wall with some difficulty in breathing, and diffuse aches in muscles and joints……it was agreed that movement did not relieve symptoms, nor did pressure and rubbing…

Forty minutes after the stinging, the abdominal musculature of the three subjects was in unrelenting spasm, so rigid as to warrant fully the term “board-like”.

Vomiting… was not troublesome for some forty minutes.

The adults obtained complete relief two minutes after the injection of 50 mg pethidine… Symptoms began to return 20 minutes after…

As the effect of the second injection wore off, all subjects complained of neuralgic pains… and intermittent administration of aspirin was necessary for approximately 24 hours. Thereafter no ill-effects were apparent.

– Barnes, 1964

The specimen of the jelly fish was named as Carukia barnesi in his honour. He went on to invent technique for the extraction of venom from the world’s most venomous creature, the Pacific Box Jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri


Other Interesting facts about Jack Barnes.

  1. He was a commando, general practioner, horseman and hospital superintendent
  2. When he was 8 years old, studying in a boarding school, he roommate died of scarlet fever. Jack borrowed a horse and rode it 100 miles to his family property.
  3. He was very good with the rifle and was often given 5 bullets and asked to catch the “Sunday meal” for the family himself.
  4. On 12th December 1912, he illegally enrolled himself in the army.
  5. His application to the Airforce was rejected because he was colour blind.
  6. Because of his shooting skills he was recruited in the army which he served till he contracted malaria and his health deteriorated till his weight was just 28 kgs. Hence, he was discharged from the army.
  7. He then entered general practise where he gave spinal anaesthesia, performed surgery, treated infections and even performed deliveries.
  8. Several of Jack’s five children suffered from a tragic, progressive and ultimately fatal neurological condition.



Amazing facts About The Jellyfish

  • Jellyfish first appeared 650 million years ago.
  • They are found in every ocean from the surface to the bottom.
  • Some jellyfish glow in the dark because they have bioluminescent organs.
  • If a jelly fish is cut in half, it can regenerate into 2 jellyfish.
  • A group of jellyfish is called a bloom or a swarm.
  • There is giant jellyfish called the Pink Meanie because of its aggressive sting and unique colour.
  • In an episode of FRIENDS, Joey applies urine to a jellyfish sting on Monica. It is believed that urine is ineffective in treating jellyfish stings.
  • Jellyfish do not have a brain or central nervous system. They just have a loose network of nerves.
  • Even a dead jellyfish can sting.
  • An adult jellyfish is named a “Medusa”, after the Greek monster Medusa that had tentacles for hair.
  • The Arctic Lion’s mane jellyfish is one of the longest known animals reached up to 120 feet.
  • The best thing to do in case of a sting is get out of the water immediately, and wash the affected with salt water. Salt water will deactivate the stinging cells.

This blogpost is a part of the #AToZChallenge-2018


  1. What a horrible person! Didn’t they take the Hippocratic oath back then? As someone who wholly supports medical research and experimentation, I can’t get over introducing something possibly lethal to a healthy 9 year old boy (and his own son to boot!). Very interesting post, though. I look forward to this series every day.

  2. what an interesting story. But don’t you think it was a bit unfair to drag his son into it? In today’s day and age he would have had to deal with things like legal consent etc….

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