Bite of the Black Widow

There's an interesting mention of the Mediterranean black widow spider, or malmignatte, in Jean-Henri Fabre's 1913 classic Life of the Spider:

A few spiders are to be feared; and foremost among these is the Malmignatte, the terror of the Corsican peasantry.  I have seen her settle in the furrows, lay out her web and rush boldly at insects larger than herself; I have admired her garb of black velvet speckled with carmine-red; above all, I have heard most disquieting stories told about her.  Around Ajaccio and Bonifacio, her bite is reputed very dangerous, sometimes mortal.  The countryman declares this for a fact and the doctor does not always dare deny it.

Of course the widows were soon proved venomous to everybody's satisfaction when Dr. Alan Blair experimented with a US species. Blair's triumph was also his sorrow. Here, from The Red Hourglass, is my account of his experiment:

Blair had been keeping widows in his laboratory for experiments on animals. (One of his experiments proved even the widow's eggs are toxic to mice.) He and his colleagues and assistants had collected the spiders from the wild; widows were plentiful around Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Blair captured Spider 111.33 in a rock pile near his own home on October 25, 1933. Like the other captive widows in Blair's laboratory, she was kept in a jar and provided with live insects. A water beetle became her last meal before the experiment. Then she went hungry for two weeks. Since earlier experimenters, like Baerg, had sometimes found it difficult to provoke a widow into biting, Blair wanted his spider hungry and irritable before he made any attempt to get bitten. (Incidentally, two weeks without food is a cakewalk for a widow. Other scientists working with a similar setup--many numbered widows in jars on shelves--once found that they had misplaced one widow at the back of a shelf for nine months. When they found her, she was still alive and eager to eat.)

On November 12, Spider 111.33 was, in Blair's words, "of moderate size, active and glossy black, with characteristic adult markings"--he means the red hourglass--"and appeared to be in excellent condition." Blair described himself as "aged 32, weighing 168 pounds...athletically inclined and in excellent health." A former college football player, Blair had just won the university's faculty tennis championship. He had monitored his body for a week and found his condition "normal." He had no particular sensitivity to mosquitoes or bees.

At ten forty-five in the morning, Blair used a small forceps to pick Spider 111.33 up by the abdomen and place her on his left hand. Without being prompted, she immediately bit him near the tip of his little finger, "twisting the cephalothorax from side to side as though to sink the claws of the chelicerae deeper into the flesh." The bite felt like a needle prick and a burn at the same time. Blair let the spider bite him for ten seconds, the burning growing more intense all the while. He removed the widow, putting it back into its jar unharmed.

A drop of "whitish fluid, slightly streaked with brown" beaded at the wound--venom laced with Blair's blood. The wound itself was so small that Blair couldn't see it even with a magnifying glass.

Blair's right hand was busy taking notes. Two minutes after the bite, he recorded a "bluish, pinpoint mark" where he had been bitten; the mark was surrounded by a disk of white skin. The finger was "burning." Soon the tip of the finger turned red, except for the pale area around the bite. The pain became "throbbing, lancinating."

Fifteen minutes after the bite, the pain had spread past the base of Blair's little finger. The side of his hand felt a bit numb. The area around the bite was sweating. The pain quickly traveled up his hand and arm, but it still was worst at the tip of his finger, which had swollen into a purple-red sausage.

At the twenty-two-minute mark, the vanguard of the pain had spread to Blair's chest, and the worst of it had progressed to his armpit, though the finger continued to throb. Noting the pain in the lymph node near his elbow, Blair deduced that the toxin had traveled through his lymphatic system.

Fifty minutes after the bite, Blair realized that the toxin was traveling in his blood. He felt "dull, drowsy, lethargic"; his blood pressure dropped; his pulse weakened; his breathing seemed deep. His white count began the steep climb it would continue throughout that day and night. His blood pressure and pulse continued to worsen.

Soon he felt flushed and had a headache and a pain in his upper belly. Malaise and pain in the neck muscles developed. Blair turned the note-taking duties over to his assistants. Shortly after noon, he noted that his legs felt "flushed, trembly" and his belly ached and was "tense." A rigid, pain-racked abdomen is a classic black widow symptom, as Blair knew from his study of other doctors' cases. He must have suspected he was about to experience pain much, much worse than he already felt. He asked to be taken to the hospital, which was three miles away. The ride took fifteen minutes, during which, as they say in politics, the situation deteriorated.

At half-past noon, Blair was at the hospital. His pulse was "weak and thready." His belly was rigid and racked with pain. His lower back ached. His chest hurt and felt "constricted." "Speech was difficult and jerky," he wrote later, adding in the detached tone obligatory for the medical journal in which he published his results, "respirations were rapid and labored, with a sharp brisk expiration accompanied by an audible grunt."

Blair's pains made it difficult for him to lie down for electrocardiograms--in fact, an assistant dutifully wrote down that he described it as "torture"--but he managed to lie still, and the EKGs proved normal. Hearing about the painful EKGs later, newspaper reporters wrongly assumed the venom had injured Blair's heart. That myth was repeated and embroidered in the press for decades, giving the widow's danger a spurious explanation easier for casual readers to grasp: heart attack.

Two hours after the bite, Blair lay on his side in fetal position. The pain had reached his legs. His "respirations were labored, with a gasping inspiration and a sharp, jerky expiration accompanied by an uncontrollable, loud, groaning grunt." He could not straighten his body, which was rigid and trembling; he certainly couldn't stand. His skin was pale and "ashy" and slick with clammy sweat. In short, he had fallen into deep shock. The bitten finger had turned blue.

Folk remedies reported from places as diverse as Madagascar and southern Europe involved the use of heat, and some doctors had reported hot baths and hot compresses helpful. William Baerg had attested the pain-relieving power of hot baths during his stay in the hospital. Blair decided to try this treatment on himself. As soon as his body was immersed, he felt an almost miraculous reduction of his pain, though it was still severe. His breath laboring, his forearms and hands jerking spastically, he allowed a nurse to take his blood pressure and pulse. His systolic pressure was 75; the diastolic pressure was too faint to determine with a cuff and stethoscope. His pulse remained weak and rapid--too rapid to count.

Forty-five minutes after Blair had arrived at the hospital, his colleague J. M. Forney arrived to take care of him. Forney found Blair lying in the bathtub, gasping for breath, his face contorted into the sweat-slick, heavy-lidded mask that has since come to be recognized as a typical symptom of widow bite. Blair said he felt dizzy. Forney later commented, "I do not recall having seen more abject pain manifested in any other medical or surgical condition."

After soaking for more than half an hour, Blair was removed from the bath, red as a boiled lobster. His breathing, like his pains, had improved as a result of the bath. Fifteen minutes later, both the ragged breathing and the pain were back at full force. Blair writhed in the hospital bed. Hot water bottles were packed against his back and belly, again reducing his pain. Perspiration poured from him, drenching his sheets. His blood pressure was 80 over 50. His pulse was a weak 120. He accepted an injection of morphine to help with the pain.

Blair continued to gulp down water. Sweat poured out of him and would for days, leaving him little moisture for producing urine. A red streak appeared on his left hand. He vomited and had diarrhea; he couldn't eat. In the evening of the first day, his blood pressure rebounded to 154 over 92; it stayed high for a week. His face swelled; his eyes were bloodshot and watery.

The night was terrible. He felt restless and could not sleep. The pain persisted. He had chills. A dose of barbiturates didn't help. He was in and out of hot baths all night. Sometime in that night the worst part came. Blair felt he couldn't endure any more pain. He said he was about to go insane; he was holding on only by an effort of his steadily weakening will. His caregivers injected him with morphine again.

The next day, his hands trembling, his arm broken out in a knobby rash, his breath stinking, his features distorted by swelling, Blair was still in pain, but he knew he was-getting better. In the evening, as he sat guzzling orange juice, sweat pouring from his body, his worst symptom was pain in the legs.

By the third day, Blair was able to sleep and eat a little. His boardlike abdomen had finally relaxed. He was beginning to look like himself again as his swollen face returned to its normal proportions. He went home that day. It took about a week for all the serious symptoms to vanish. After that, his body itched for two more weeks, and the skin on his hands and feet peeled as if burned.

Blair later returned to his native Saskatchewan, where he had an illustrious career in cancer treatment and research. When he died of heart trouble at age forty-seven, prime ministers and other public figures eulogized him. The story of his black widow experiment, which the wire service had named one of the top ten human interest stories of 1933, was retold in the papers at his death, and one more accretion of myth was added to the story when his heart trouble was falsely attributed to the bite of the black widow sixteen years before.

Blair's ordeal convinced the skeptics the widow's bite is toxic and potentially deadly. Thousands of cases of latrodectism, as widow poisoning is called, have been documented since then. The variation in symptoms from one person to the next is remarkable, making some cases hard to diagnose. The constant is pain, usually all over the body but concentrated in the belly, legs, and lower back. Often the soles of the feet hurt--one woman said she felt as if someone were ripping off her toenails or taking an iron to her feet.

Some doctors trying to diagnose an uncertain case ask, "Is this the worst pain you've ever felt?" A "yes" suggests a diagnosis of black widow bite. Several doctors have made remarks similar to Forney's, about the widow causing the worst human suffering they ever witnessed (though one ranked the widow's bite second to tetanus, which is sometimes a complication of widow bite). One of the questions Blair had in mind when he began his experiment was whether people acquire immunity over successive bites. He never answered this question because, as he frankly admitted, he was afraid of having another experience like his first.

Besides pain, several other symptoms appear regularly in widow victims, and Blair's suffering provided examples of most of them: a rigid abdomen, the "mask of latrodectism" (a distorted face caused by pain and involuntary contraction of muscles), intense sweating (the body's attempt to purge the toxin), nausea, vomiting, swelling. A multitude of other symptoms have occurred in widow bite cases, including convulsions, fainting, paralysis, and amnesia. Baerg and a number of other victims reported nightmares and sleep disturbances after the life-threatening phase of their reactions had passed.

Blair's fear for his sanity was not unusual either. Other patients have expressed similar fears, and some, like Baerg, have lapsed into delirium. Some have tried to kill themselves to stop the pain. (A few people have intentionally tried to get bitten as a method of suicide. It would be hard to imagine a method at once so uncertain and so painful.)

The venom contains a neurotoxin that accounts for the pain and the system-wide effects like roller-coaster blood pressure. But this chemical explanation only opens the door to deeper mysteries. A dose of the venom contains only a few molecules of the neurotoxin, which has a high molecular weight--in fact, the molecules are large enough to be seen under an ordinary microscope. How do these few molecules manage to affect the entire body of an animal weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds? No one has explained the specific mechanism. It seems to involve a neural cascade, a series of reactions initiated by the toxin, but with the toxin not directly involved in any but the first steps of the process. The toxin somehow flips a switch that activates a self-torture mechanism.


  1. Lovely to look at, but I am far too much of a chicken to actually touch, lol. This tale simply reinforces that for me lol.(Dee)

  2. I don't touch them, either, at least not on purpose.

  3. I think I did tell you that my grandmother was bitten by one? Ironically, she never developed a fear of spiders. It's snakes she can´t stand...

  4. I don't remember that (which doesn't mean you didn't tell me. . . my brain is highly porous). What's the story?


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