George Berkeley and tar water
This guy was hooked on tar water. Yep, tar water. It’s a thick, black, viscous liquid obtained by the distillation of wood or coal. (I googled it.) He drank it for everything—said it was for medicinal purposes, but I think we know how that story goes. Here’s a guy, an Irish bishop, who once wanted to found a college in Bermuda. This is all early 1700s. He’s now famous for his Idealism, by which we mean anti-Materialism, by which we mean he believed nothing exists outside our perception of it, which is a pretty big problem if you want science to predict stuff, to be about real things. But don’t worry, he was famously “refuted thusly” when Samuel Johnson banged on a wooden table or kicked a rock—I don’t know, the story changes—to show its reality, which, by the by, seemed to miss the point as far as I can tell, but is sort of a famous incident now. Anyhow. While visiting America on his way to that failed attempt at Bermuda U., our Bishop Berkeley somehow got the idea that tar water was a cure-all. Asthma, smallpox, dysentery, you name it. So he began a years-long course of imbibing. He even dissertated on the various benefits of pine-based or fir-based tar. It’s fair to say he was addicted. The guy had a lot of problems—planning, among other things, to kidnap Indians and reeducate them on the Bermuda campus, believing they were the lost tribes of Israel—so who knows what was cause and what was effect. The point being, yum, tar water.
Dmitri Mendeleyev and vodka (a counterexample)
Now, if you’re Russian (I’m not) and Dmitri Mendeleyev (he was), your identity has something to do with vodka. No getting around it. So let’s say your father went blind soon after you were born, you had thirteen older siblings, your mom had to take over breadwinning duties: she ran a glass factory—and, did I mention, you lived in Siberia? Let’s add that this mother of fourteen then hitchhiked 14,000 miles to Moscow so you could get an education but that since you were a Siberian they wouldn’t let you in, and you had to trudge another 400 miles to St. Petersburg. If you’re not into the drink after that, and you are somehow already nationalistically predestined to guzzle vodka, and as part of your doctoral dissertation (1864, i.e. pre-periodic table) you hammered out some details about the mixing of alcohol and water that would later help your comrades levy excise taxes more effectively, then there’s just no way you’re not tipping back beakers of 80 proof. But you’re not. You didn’t. Maybe because one of those older brothers died of dipsomania and, though this was later, your son Ivan did too. As it happens, Georgian wine was your thing. And you always kept it away from the lab. We cherish you for that.
Humphry Davy and nitrous oxide
Dandy, fop, upwardly mobile man of vain ambition. Chemist, president of the Royal Society in the 1820s, mining lamp inventor, voltaic pile junkie (with which he showed that chlorine, iodine, potassium, and sodium were basic elements). Close friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Josiah Wedgwood, and that Roget guy too. You know, Mr. Synonym. How about those Pneumatic Institution days? Coleridge and Wedgwood would come over; they would toke up at the nitrous oxide tank. Seriously. This is basically 1790s hallucinogenics. Inspiring, huh? Oh, I understand: it wasn’t just recreational; it was for the knowledge. They were “auto-experimenting.” Those guys who called Davy a dandy and a fop and ridiculed his lowly origins, who were snide and denigrating, pointing at his supposedly shop-smelling clothes, who called him “dirty finger gentry,” a social climber, new money—there were a lot of these guys—they were just jealous he didn’t let them breeze some proto-whippets with the boys. Hell, not since Descartes was eating tobacco has someone so austere been so diggin’ it.
Jonas Salk and LSD
Oh come on, he never did LSD. That’s libel. Truth be told, I got nothing on Salk. Just your typical, respectable polio vaccine developer. Aldous Huxley, now there’s a guy who dropped acid. But he wasn’t a scientist (though his grandfather Thomas and brother Julian were) and LSD was legal anyhow back when he tried it. Me? I’ve never done it, although I did go to organic chem lab once with a pretty nasty hangover. Though I guess I’m not a scientist, either. Anymore.