When Lab Scientists Used to Pipette with Their Mouths

There've been lots of advancements in lab tech, but here's one researchers are probably particularly grateful for: the modern pipette. Why? Because, before its invention, lab protocol called for scientists to pipette with their mouths, much like you would a straw.

Top image: A lab tech in 1943 pipetting plasma samples / British Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection

In response to this post, on the technological updates that made the biggest difference in your life, commenter Sajanas1 responded with an ode to the Pipette Aid. Accompanying it was a note about mouth pipetting, which (besides making me grateful that my own days in the lab came well after the Gilson pipette was standard) was an interesting look at laboratory history:

The Pipette Aid. There was a point where people had to move liquids with little rubble balls that were noxious, leaked, and were generally a pain. And before that, they had to mouth pipette... one of my professors in college was an Iron Lady who would mouth pipette the hemorrhagic E. coli strain. But now, in a real lab, you get one of these babies and never look back.

Just what is mouth pipetting? Rebecca Kreston, over at Body Horrors in Discover, explains (along with a helpful GIF, included at the bottom of the post):

Don't worry, reader, I heard you tentatively whisper, "just what exactly is mouth pipetting, dare I ask?"

Like so: insert an open-ended glass capillary tube into your mouth. Place the opposite, tapered end of the tube into a solution of your choice. Microbial stews, blood, cell culture, it is totally your call. With a method that carefully mimics the sucking of a straw, draw a solution upwards through your man-made pipette to your desired volume using the tension created by the reduced air pressure – yes, suction! Maintain the tension with your mouth. Do not suck too hard and inadvertently slurp the solution into your mouth. Careful now. Gently move the pipette end from one vessel and release your precious cargo into yet another vessel.

That is mouth pipetting.

Predictably, pipetting by basically sucking on a straw stuck into your lab samples did, on occasion, yield results that ranged from unpleasant to straight-up poisonings.

All together now, folks: THAT'S NOT HOW YOU PIPETTE.

When Lab Scientists Used to Pipette with Their Mouths