Issue 63

More wisdom from ancient Greeks, Pfizer's first blockbuster drug, and girls playing football

Feb. 2, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Programming notes:

First, Scrap Facts is a labor of love, and unfortunately, my time is limited. Due to some exciting opportunities that have come my way, I’ll be cutting back this newsletter to twice per month.

Second, I’m excited to share that I’ll be telling one of my favorite stories about long-distance running and the outdoors next Friday, Feb. 8, at the REI store here in Washington DC. If you’re in the area and would like to come, it’s free! Details can be found here.

Greek mythology was probably right about the liver’s restorative powers.

Found while reporting: This obsession email on livers.

Ever since I started thinking about alcohol, I started thinking about our livers.

Livers do so much more than break down booze. In fact, they take care of over 500 different jobs within the body, by some physicians’ count. And on top of everything they do, they’re immortal.

Well, okay, not really (although Cate Mackenzie, a physician practicing in Canada told me that whereas hearts and kidneys may wear out with age alone, healthy livers keep on truckin’). It’s very possible to damage livers, but it takes a lot because healthy livers regrow pretty rapidly. In fact, livers are capable of regrowing so quickly, it’s possible to take half of a liver from a living donor and give it to someone else in need.

This restorative super power is so impressive it may have actually been noticed by the ancient Greeks. In Greek mythology, the god Zeus gets really mad at Prometheus, a titan who stole fire for humans and told us about metal working. As punishment, Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten by an eagle. Every night, it’d regrow, and the process would start all over again.

It’s unclear if the Greeks knew that livers do actually regrow pretty quickly, but they did recognize the organs’ importance. Scholars know that the Greeks saw the liver as the source of the soul because of the way it filters all the blood in the body. So because the organ was thought to hold the soul, which is immortal, they assumed that livers were immortal, too.

Lucky for Prometheus, his eternal punishment wasn’t actually forever. Hercules eventually came along and shot the eagle with his bow.

Before it had Viagra, Pfizer had penicillin.

Found while reporting: Without a patent on Viagra, Pfizer’s share price has been flaccid in 2019.

Although the are a lot of little blue pills, Viagra is the little blue pill.

The pill was an immediate sensation when it was first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1998 (I mean, just look at the way it affected drug prescription drug prices). And for a while, it was one of Pfizer’s big moneymakers—but there are a lot of generic versions of the drug now.

But way before Viagra was accidentally discovered, another Pfizer had another hit. It was the first company to mass-produce penicillin.

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin mold is famous, because it came about from no work; a messy desk and vacation and eventually earned him the Nobel Prize. But the journey from discovery to drug required a lot more effort, according to this detailed account from the American Chemical Society.

First, it was really hard to actually isolate penicillin from the gross mold juice Fleming found on his desk. That took over a decade, including work from researchers at the University of Oxford and their “penicillin girls” who were in charge of babysitting the mold while it was growing.

During the WWII, research universities raced to find ways to make penicillin on a much larger scale. They brought some of these early plans to several drug companies, including Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb, Pfizer, and Abbott Labs. Although these companies each worked to produce small quantities of the drug, Pfizer was the group that first mass-produced it by March 1, 1944.

More high school are playing football than ever before.

Found while reporting: Kids are quitting football as Super Bowl LIII and the NFL’s centennial loom.

Based on high school participation statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations, overall fewer kids are playing football than there were 10 years ago.

This is likely because of parents’ concerns about the long-term effects of repeated hits to their child’s heads.

However, within this overall trend, the number of girls playing has gone up:

(I have no idea what happened in 2009, but I’d be curious if you do! Email me at

Girls make up only a small fraction of the total number of football players. And from a scientific standpoint, I definitely think that we need to eliminate tackle football—I don’t see the point in waiting to see more evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players when there’s already substantial work in the field.

But, considering that so many people see that American see football as “masculine” and “tough,” I’m all for girls getting in the game and proving that they can be fierce athletes, too.

Stuff I learned from others:

The bobbit worm—you know, that horrifying creature from the deep—got its name from Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who infamously chopped off her abusive husband’s penis in the early 90s. H/T to Adam Pasick at Quartz for bringing that to my attention.

The man who started the celery juice craze is not a doctor nor nutritionalist of any kind, and says that a voice told him to make the juice, from Rosie Spinks for Quartzy.

The spider-tailed viper is essentially a venomous land angler fish, from Sol Milne, an ecology grad student, on Twitter.

Animal of the week: This very beautiful non-binary cardinal. Cardinals are one of the species where male and female birds look really different from one another. This particular cardinal seems to be half male and half female, giving it some gorgeous red and brown plumage. It is happy and healthy, and has a friend with it a lot of the time, observers report.

Long read of the week: Michael Weinreb, a freelance reporter, wrote this story in The Ringer about how concerns in football safety have created a political rift in California, one of the top-three football-player-producing states. This story was inspiration for my story on high school football player rates, and it’s well worth the read.

Additionally, fellow newsletter writer Walt Hickey interviewed Weinreb for the Sunday edition of Numlock News (subscription edition) if you’d like to learn more. He also interviewed me a few weeks ago!

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

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