The Museum of Hoaxes

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The Quest for Bulletproof Skin
An August 2011 Associated Press story reported that Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi, in collaboration with Utah State researcher Randy Lewis, created "bulletproof skin". Or, at least, skin that's somewhat bulletproof. The material was able to stop a bullet fired at reduced speed from a .22 caliber rifle, though not one fired at normal speed.

An undated image by Essaidi showing the bulletproof skin stopping a bullet.

Lewis is well known as a silk expert. He's most famous for genetically engineering goats to produce spider silk in their milk. When Essaidi learned of Lewis's goat-silk, she came up with the idea of using some of it to create bulletproof skin. She wrote on her blog:

By implementing this bulletproof matrix of spider silk produced by transgenic goats in human skin I want to explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues surrounding safety in a world with access to new biotechnologies. Issues which arise on the basis of ancient human desire for invulnerability. It is legend that Achilles, the central character of Homer’s Iliad was invulnerable in all of his body except for his heel. Will we in the near future due to biotechnology no longer need to descend from a godly bloodline in order to have traits like invulnerability?

In this video clip, Essaidi discusses her project:

Unfortunately, Lewis didn't have enough of the goat-silk to spare for Essaidi's project. So Instead he sent her some silk from genetically engineered silkworms. Essaidi was then able to get human skin to grow on a lattice of this silk. She placed the skin/silk combination on a gelatin block and fired bullets at it.

Lewis responded to the news that the material had stopped low-velocity bullets by saying, "We were more than a little surprised that the final skin kept the bullet from going in there... It still ended up 2 inches into the torso, so it would not have saved your life. But without a doubt the most exciting part for us is the fact that they were able to recreate the skin on top of our fibers. It's something we haven't done. Nobody has worked in that area."

Lewis reportedly doesn't think that making skin that can stop bullets is going to be a major research focus going forward, but he does think that such silk/skin could have some surgical applications. According to the AP, "He said the material's strength and elasticity would enable doctors to cover large areas without worrying about it ripping out — a big advantage over small skin grafts."

Percy Terry's (non) bulletproof skin
This isn't the first time someone has dreamed of creating bulletproof skin. Going back to 1915, one finds the strange story of amateur researcher Percy Terry. Terry created an ointment that he believed could, after repeated applications, harden the skin so much that it would become bulletproof. He hoped to sell his ointment to the military, envisioning armies of bulletproof men who could charge across battlefields, invulnerable to anything but cannons. He figured that the war in Europe would provide a large market for his invention.

But naturally Terry first had to test his invention, and he chose to do so on himself. After smearing himself with the ointment for weeks, he finally decided it was time for the ultimate test: shooting himself. The Los Angeles Times reported what happened:

Saturday was the time for the experiment. He rubbed one more coating over his face and then he bought a revolver and a shot gun to make the final test. Tomorrow he would be a multimillionaire. But he had hardly money with which to buy the ammunition for the experiment.

He took the revolver, put it to his face and pulled the trigger three times. The bullets passed through his cheek, and the shock threw him back. He thought his skin had deflected the missiles, feeling no pain, further than a smarting that he thought came from the impact of the bullets. Then warm streams began to flow down, but his toughened skin did not announce the fluid until it crawled to his clothing, staining it.

With horrified disappointment, Percy Terry went to a mirror and saw his cheek had been punctured. He was anguished beyond control with the failure of his test.

"Well, a bullet may be too heavy to stop just yet," he shouted to himself so neighbors could hear him. "But I know I can stop shot from a gun."

So he lifted the muzzle of the gun to his face and fired. He fell. The lower part of his face was torn away. Unconscious he was taken to the County Hospital yesterday. And he slid away to the camp of martyred experimenters. And with him went the secret that was to have stopped the wars of the world."
  • "His skin not bullet-proof" (Aug 30, 1915). Los Angeles Times: II1.
  • DeBruin, L. (Aug 21, 2011). "Utah researcher helps artist make bulletproof skin". Associated Press.
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