Although experimentation involving other human beings has always been a topic that sparks heated debate, the matter of self-experimentation among medical researchers has received much less criticism. Apparently, having the ethical right to do whatever we want with ourselves and our bodies – provided we cause no harm to others in the course of that work – makes things less controversial than using others to do the “dirty” work. After all, every scientist and researcher that respects himself should not subject the participants in the experiment to any procedure they would not be willing to undertake themselves. Right?
Despite self-experimentation by medical researchers being in constant decline in recent years, there’s a strong tradition of self-experimentation in the research and scientific fields, with the list of noted scientists testing their own discoveries ahead of introducing them into the “market” being pretty lengthy. Believe it or not, there have been performed nearly 470 documented instances of this practice during the course of the past 150 years, with some of these experiments being very valuable and shedding new insights into different areas of medicine. Here follow 20 medical researchers whose courage and bravery benefits society to this day. Unfortunately, some of them lost their lives in the name of science while conducting an experiment on themselves.
20. Pierre Curie exposed his arm to Radium for 10 hours in an attempt to find a cancer treatment.
Following the separation and purification of radium, the chemical element became available in small quantities for experiments during the early years of the 20th century. In the hands of brilliant scientists, radium laid the foundations of nuclear physics and radiochemistry. Marie Curie had observed that radium chloride could glow in the dark, emitting blue light. Later, it was found that radium mixed with zinc sulfide could emit brighter light, and it was introduced to the common people through wrist watches, alarm clocks, aircraft instrument dials, and anything that needs to be read in the dark. However, the scientific community kept focusing on its medical applications.
Pierre Curie was so fascinated by Marie’s work that he joined forces with her. He exposed his arm for 10 hours to the action of radium and ‘to his joy’ as historical accounts mention, a lesion appeared in the form of a burn. Pierre went on collaborating with the best doctors of his time and discovered that radium rays destroyed living cells and certain forms of cancers. The first treatment using radium was reported in 1901 by Henri-Alexandre Danlos, a dermatologist at St. Louis Hospital in Paris, who successfully treated a few cases of lupus with an admixture of radium and barium chloride.
19. The discovery of the ABO Blood group system was based on an analysis of blood samples from members of the laboratory staff, including the Leading’s Researcher.
Karl Landsteiner was an Austrian biologist, physician, and immunologist, who distinguished the main blood groups in 1900. Having developed the modern system of the classification of blood groups from his identification of the presence of agglutinins in the blood, he also identified the Rhesus factor, a discovery that laid the groundwork for the first successful blood transfusions in 1907. For his contributions to the world of medicine, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1930. This was a Nobel Prize he earned with his own blood. And when we say “own blood” we mean it in the most literal way possible.
Dr. Landsteiner published a paper that made the first mention of the isoagglutination of human blood, proposing that the occurrence was linked with the uniqueness of an individual’s blood as opposed to having a pathological cause. In 1901, Landsteiner cross tested sera and red cells from scientists working in his lab, including his own. His findings revealed that blood from certain scientists caused the blood of others to clump, suggesting the existence of at least two antibody classes. Landsteiner promptly dubbed them anti-A and anti-B. Eventually, his valuable conclusions led to the identification of the four blood groups: A, B, O, and AB.
18. Haldane repeatedly put himself in a Decompression Chamber to investigate the physiological effects of various levels of gases.
John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (J.B.S.H.) was an English scientist known for his research and works in physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology and mathematics. He accomplished great things to the fields of statistics and biostatistics. J.B.S.H. was the son of John Scott Haldane, a communist physiologist famous for intrepid self-experimentation, which led to many important discoveries about the human body and the nature of gases. It was his father’s physiological self-experimentation that inspired him more than anything. In one such experiment, J.B.S.H. repeatedly placed himself in a decompression chamber to investigate effects on divers, ultimately suffering oxygen poisoning that led to burst eardrums and regular seizures.
During other experiments, J.B.S.H. drank large doses of hydrochloric acid to examine its effects on muscle action and exercised to exhaustion while measuring carbon dioxide pressure in his lungs. He kept notes about his self-experimentation, titled On Being One’s Own Rabbit, with such choice observations as “to do the sorts of things to a dog as one does to the average medical student requires a license signed in triplicate by two archbishops, as far as I can remember.” Nobel laureate Peter Medawar described Haldane as one of the most intelligent men her ever met, and possibly one of the bravest.
17. Physiologist ate minced raw beef every morning, regurgitated it an hour later, and fed it to his patients.
William Bosworth Castle was a physiologist who played an important role in the emergence of hematology as a scientific discipline in the first half of the 20st century. His contributions were instrumental in establishing the global reputation of the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory and the Harvard Medical Unit at Boston City Hospital. Castle’s early experiments solved the puzzle of pernicious anemia and were the building blocks for a series of experiments on that disease that stand as one of the finest examples of clinical research ever conducted. Castle and his group also made pioneering contributions to hemoglobin physiology, mechanisms of hemolysis, splenic function, and sickle cell anemia.
However, some of his experiments were seen as controversial at the time. In 1926, he started eating minced raw beef every morning, vomiting it an hour later, and then fed it to his patients suffering from pernicious anemia. Castle was testing his theory that there was an intrinsic factor produced in a normal stomach that hugely increased the uptake of the extrinsic factor (now identified as vitamin B12), the lack of which leads to pernicious anemia. Beef is a good source of B12, but patients did not respond with beef alone. Castle reasoned they lacked production of this intrinsic factor and he could provide it from his own stomach. Disgusting or not, these were some groundbreaking results.
16. After years of battling uncontrollable addiction, an alcoholic doctor began experimenting with Baclofen – achieving what could be the medical breakthrough of the 21st Century.
Dr. Olivier Ameisen was an extraordinary cardiologist, working for one of America’s top teaching hospitals and running his own successful practice when he developed a self-destructive addiction to alcohol. He broke bones with no memory of falling, he nearly lost his kidneys, and almost died from massive seizures during acute withdrawal. He gave up his practice and, fearing for his life, immersed himself in Alcoholics Anonymous, rehab, therapy, and a variety of medications. Nothing worked. So he did the only thing he could: he took his treatment into his own hands.
Searching for a cure for his condition, he happened upon baclofen, a muscle relaxant that had been used safely for years as a treatment for various types of muscle spasticity, but had also shown promising results in studies with laboratory animals addicted to a wide variety of substances. Ameisen prescribed himself the drug and experimented with increasingly higher dosages until he finally reached a level high enough to leave him free of any craving for alcohol. In 2008, Ameisen wrote a best-selling book, The End Of My Addiction, describing his experience of curing his alcoholism with baclofen.
15. Swedish scientist performed the first injection anesthesia experiments on himself and Xylocaine was “born”.
In the 1940s, one third of surgical procedures in Sweden were performed with local or regional anesthesia. It was less traumatic for the patient. The major risk with local anesthetics came from having to inject in an area rich in blood vessels, presenting risk of a toxic effect leading to cardiac arrest. Surgeons had to watch for spasms and convulsions. They wanted a substance with a low toxicity and a rapid onset; this substance should also last a long time and be kept in bottles.
Lidocaine, the first amino amide-type local anesthetic, was first synthesized under the name Xylocaine by Swedish chemist Nils Lofgren in 1943. The name Xylocaine was created as a union of its most important raw product, xylidine, and the general suffix used for local anesthetics, “-caine.” In May 1948, the patent for Xylocaine was approved in Sweden and a few months later, it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States as well. All this would never happen, however, if Lofgren’s colleague named Bengt Lundqvist wasn’t brave enough to perform the first injection anesthesia experiments on himself.
14. Doctor of Armenian origin developed the use of Sodium Cromoglycate as a remedy for Asthma by performing experiments on himself.
The discovery of cortisone in 1949 provided the first effective drug treatment of the inflammatory processes underlying asthma. This benefit came with the risk of side effects so serious that doctors were often reluctant to use them. A safe nonsteroidal drug was urgently needed. Fifteen years later, Dr. Roger Altounyan discovered that the medical research department was seeking a better bronchodilator by means of molecular modification of the Middle Eastern drug khellin, which was known to relax smooth muscle. Some of the new compounds protected guinea pigs from fatal bronchoconstriction induced either by inhalation of histamine or methacholine or by inhalation of an aerosol of egg albumin in sensitized animals.
However, Altounyan noted that prior inhalation of one compound partially protected antigen-challenged guinea pigs, even though it had no bronchodilator properties. The significance of this observation had been overlooked until Altounyan saw that this unique property had the potential of being a preventive treatment for allergic asthma. He knew that human asthma and bronchospasm induced in guinea pigs had different features and was convinced that the experimental compounds needed to be tested in human asthma. He therefore persuaded the chemists to give him some to try on asthma that he would induce in himself.
13. Australian researcher experimented on himself to find what causes stomach ulcers and earned a Nobel Prize for his courage.
Barry James Marshall is a decorated Australian physician and the only living member in our list, a fact that clearly proves that there are a few remaining scientists out there who will still risk their own lives in the name of research. Dr. Marshall and his colleague, Robin Warren, proved that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) plays a major role in causing many peptic ulcers, challenging decades of medical doctrine holding that ulcers were caused primarily by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid.
The research lasted for many years and wasn’t easy (or even safe) for Dr. Marshall though. Back in the summer of 1984, the Australian physician walked over to his lab bench, pulled down a beaker, and mixed a cocktail. The key ingredient of his not-so-tasty drink was about a billion Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Marshall hoped to show the world that the microorganism causes ulcers when he gulped the potion and which he described as “swamp water.” Twenty-one years later, the Swedish Institute in Stockholm awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Marshall and Robin Warren for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.
12. Pharmacist injected Morphine into his veins during a public experiment to silence his critics.
Often described as one of the most comforting drugs in history, morphine is mostly used when a person is in the advanced stages of illness and the drug takes away the unbearable pain. This opioid helps maintain the person’s comfort throughout the illness and up to the time of death. Of course, it can also be used as a plain drug that some people use for pleasure and relaxing purposes. German pharmacist, Friedrich Serturner, is “legally to blame” for its discovery.
A pioneer of Alkaloid chemistry, Serturner was the first to isolate morphine from opium in 1804 and called the isolated alkaloid “morphium” after the Greek god of sleep and dreams, Morpheus. He published a comprehensive paper on its isolation, crystallization, crystal structure, and pharmacological properties, which he studied first in stray dogs. However, there were many scientists who challenged his theories and studies on morphine. Serturner, who wanted to prove his theory right, conducted a public experiment on himself and became the first human to make use of morphine publicly.
11. French dermatologist injected himself with discharge from Breast Cancer and lived to tell the tale to his children.
Jean-Louis-Marc Alibert did not begin studying medicine until he was 26 years old, but his contributions to research and study on cancer are extremely valuable to this day. In 1801, he was appointed general doctor to the Saint-Louis Hospital, where he administered to patients with skin disorders, syphilis and leprosy. Following the Restoration of the French monarchy, Alibert became a personal physician to France’s king, Louis XVIII. Later, he became the personal physician to another French king, Charles X, who gave him the title of “baron.” Despite the fame and honors he gained during his medical career, Alibert remained a dedicated doctor who wasn’t afraid to use his own body for scientific purposes.
One such instance occurred in 1808, when he injected himself with a type of discharge from breast cancer to see if cancer is contagious. The site of injection became inflamed, but did not develop cancer, which helped Alibert to conclude that cancer couldn’t be transmitted from one person to another. Ultimately, Alibert first classified dermatological disorders according to outer appearance, then he divided them into what he called families, genera and species. This system of classification was represented pictorially by him as the “Tree of Dermatoses”.
10. German chemist crank broth deliberately infected with a large dose of Cholera Bacteria to disprove the theory of a fellow scientist.
Max von Pettenkofer was a Bavarian chemist and hygienist who lived and worked during the 19th century. In his early career, he worked on industrial chemical processes and analysis of urine and bile acids. But he is best remembered in connection with his work in practical hygiene, as an apostle of good water, fresh air and proper sewage disposal. He also developed standards for adequate ventilation in schools and hospitals. What truly made him popular within the scientific circles of his era, however, was his intense studies and experiments on cholera.
He was extremely passionate about his research on cholera… to the point where he drank broth deliberately infected with a large dose of cholera bacteria. He did this in order to disprove the theory of Robert Koch that the disease was caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae alone. The German chemist also took bicarbonate of soda to counter a claim by Koch that stomach acid killed the bacteria. Pettenkofer escaped with mild symptoms and claimed success, but the contemporary view is that he did indeed have cholera, luckily just a mild case, and possibly had some immunity from a previous episode.
9. Forensic scientist performed twelve hanging experiments on himself… and eventually died from complications of his vocal cords.
Mostly remembered for his research on connections between tattooing and criminal behavior, as well as his meticulous study and self-experiments on hanging, Nicolae Minovici was a Romanian forensic scientist and criminologist who served as head of his country’s anthropometric service. He performed not one, not two, but twelve hanging experiments involving himself as the subject. At first, he put the noose around his neck while lying down and had an assistant put tension on the rope. He then moved on to full suspension by the neck.
Ultimately, he attempted suspension with a slipping hangman’s knot, but the pain was too great for him to continue. He could not swallow for a month. Minovici was determined to surpass the world record set by Dr. Fleichmann of Erlangen, who in 1832, self-asphyxiated for two minutes. Unfortunately, he didn’t even come close to break the record, but this didn’t stop him from publishing in 1904 a 200-page book titled Study on Hanging. There, he described his near-death chokings that led to the appearance of flashing lights, anesthesia, heat sensation in the head, memory loss, mental disorders, and most notably, “excitation.”
Unfortunately for Minovici, his research got the best of him. Minovici died in 1941 from an illness affecting his vocal cords. Many believe his constant experimentation and asphyxiation weakened this area. He died a bachelor, bequeathing his estate, including his home, which was built by architect Cristofi Cerchez, and a collection of Romanian folk art to his country. His home is now an ethnological museum.
8. Medical student allowed patients with Yellow Fever to vomit all over him – only so he could prove his theory right. Unfortunately, his theory was wrong.
Stubbins Ffirth, a trainee doctor in Philadelphia during the early 19th century theorized that yellow fever was not contagious, believing that the drop in cases during winter showed that it was more likely a result of the heat and stresses of the summer months. And he went further than most scientists in history to prove his theory right. He started his experiments by making small incisions on his arms and pouring “fresh black vomit” obtained from a yellow-fever patient into the cuts. Next he dribbled some vomit in his eyes. He fried some up on a skillet and inhaled the fumes.
After he fashioned some vomit into a pill and swallowed it, he decided to drink entire glasses of pure, undiluted black vomit. And still he didn’t get sick. Ffirth rounded out his experiment by liberally smearing himself with other yellow-fever tainted fluids: blood, saliva, perspiration, and urine. Healthy as ever, he declared his theory proven. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Yellow fever is very contagious, but it requires direct transmission into the blood stream, usually by a mosquito, to cause infection. But considering all Ffirth did to infect himself, it is a bit of a miracle he didn’t die from yellow fever.
7. Scientist performed an exchange blood transfusion between himself and a Thrombocytopenic patient to discover the immune basis of idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura.
The infamous Harrington-Hollingsworth experiment was an experiment that established the autoimmune nature of the blood disorder immune thrombocytopenic purpura. The experiment was undertaken in 1950 by physician William J. Harrington and James W. Hollingsworth, who postulated that in patients with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), it was a blood factor that caused the destruction of platelets. To test this hypothesis, Harrington received 500 ml of blood from a patient with ITP. Within three hours, his platelets dropped to dangerously low levels and he experienced a seizure. His platelet count remained extremely low for four days, finally returning to normal levels by the fifth day.
Bone marrow biopsy from Harrington’s sternum demonstrated normal megakaryocytes, the cells necessary for platelet production. Subsequently the experiment was repeated on all suitable staff members at the Barnes-Jewish Hospital. All subjects developed low platelet counts within three hours, and all recovered after a period of several days. Contemporary scientists consider the Harrington-Hollingsworth experiment a landmark in the understanding of ITP’s pathophysiology as it changed the meaning of the “I” in ITP from idiopathic to immune, but “immune” in this case means “autoimmune,” because the antibodies bind to and cause the destruction of the patient’s own platelets.
6. Surgeon investigated if Cancer was contagious by surgically inserting a piece of Cancerous lymph node from a patient with Cancer of the lip under his skin.
You may have heard of Nicholas Senn being the “father” of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, even though the man was Swiss in reality. He was born in Sevelen, Switzerland and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1852 when he was eight years old, settling in Ashford, Wisconsin. Nonetheless, Senn grew up becoming an American patriot who served as the president of the American Medical Association in 1897-98 and as chief surgeon of the Sixth Army Corps in 1898, seeing service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. His contributions to medicine, however, are those that made him stand out.
He is credited with pioneering work on the pancreas and the intestinal tract and he was among the first to use the then unpredictable x-rays in the treatment of leukemia. His many experiments relating to the reason for infection resulting from surgery led to surgical improvements practiced by all surgeons. In 1901, he examined whether cancer was contagious. He surgically inserted under his skin a piece of cancerous lymph node from a patient with cancer of the lip. After two weeks, the transplant started to fade and Senn concluded that cancer is not contagious.
5. Medical student infected himself with the disease of a patient and died a few weeks later.
Daniel Alcides Carrion was a Peruvian medical student after whom Carrion’s disease is named. During his school excursions as a student, Carrion met several people with verrucous skin eruptions and caught an interest in the disease that was later named after him. From 1881 he conducted extensive research on “Oroya fever”, including clinical studies at the Dos de Mayo hospital in Lima. Carrion recognized that the disease was endemic, but not contagious. In order to find out whether the disease could be inoculated and to study its clinical course, Carrion decided to conduct an experiment on himself.
On August 27, 1885, Carrion took blood from a 14 year old boy that carried the disease. As Carrion had trouble inoculating himself, friends took the lancet and made four inoculations, two in each of Carrion’s arms. He experienced the first symptoms of the disease on September 17, and by September 26 he was too ill to make his own notes, which were continued by his friends attending him at the bedside. Carrion’s condition rapidly deteriorated and on October 5 he eventually died. Soon after his death from the disease, a fellow student who had assisted in the experiment was arrested for his “murder,” but later released.
4. Romanian Microbiologist injected himself with bacteria from rabbits suffering from Syphilis and prayed to be right about his medical theories.
Undoubtedly one of the most significant figures in virology and immunology – especially in the study of poliomyelitis and syphilis – Constantin Levaditi was accepted in 1900 to work in Dr. Metchnikoff’s team at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He eventually became head of the laboratory of the Pasteur Institute for over 20 years, earned several honors and published more than 1,200 notes, articles, and monographs during his decorated career. He dominated the study of syphilis in his time and introduced new techniques in serology, such as using the silver-salt staining method in the livers of newborn congenital syphilitics.
He demonstrated that to supplement the Wassermann-Bordet reaction (an antibody test for syphilis), a normal liver could be used for diagnosis, thus pioneering the study of antigens. With his colleagues he applied bismuth therapy to syphilis, and achieved results with metallotherapy. When his opponents challenged his methods and theories, he didn’t hesitate to inject himself with infected bacteria from rabbits suffering from syphilis only so he could prove them wrong. Fortunately, he did not contract the disease after his bold experiment.
3. Surgeon safely removed his own appendix while under local anesthetic at the age of 60.
Even though there have been quite a few surgeons operating on themselves throughout the years, in most cases this was the result of emergency rather than self-experiment. There’s a bright exception to this rule though. The first surgeon to conduct a self-operation (as part of an experiment), was American surgeon Evan O’Neill Kane in 1921. In his illustrious thirty-seven-year medical career, Dr. O’Neill Kane had performed nearly four thousand appendectomies, so this surgery would be nothing new to the experienced surgeon.
However, there was a twist: he didn’t have to operate himself, but instead he decided to do so as part of his movement against the excessive use of general anesthetic at the time. During the procedure, Dr. O’Neil only complained of a minor discomfort. Once he was done with the procedure, he was taken into post-op and was placed in a hospital ward. He recovered quickly and was discharged two days later. Dr. O’Neil had proven his theory that local anesthesia was a viable alternative, and operated on himself again at the age of 70 to repair a hernia.
2. Air Force medical doctor volunteered to be used as “Human Rocket” in order to study the human body’s tolerance to Aircraft Crash Forces.
There’s a good chance that you know him as the “human rocket” or the “the fastest man on earth.” Colonel John Paul Stapp was an American career U.S. Air Force officer, flight surgeon, physician, biophysicist, and pioneer in studying the effects of acceleration and deceleration forces on humans who made history for his bold self-experiments. Stapp accelerated in 5 seconds from a standstill to 632 miles an hour, and then decelerated to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds, subjecting him to pressures 40 times the pull of gravity. From 1947 to 1955, he participated in 28 more such experiments and broke all kinds of land and deceleration records.
These tests investigated the effects of acceleration, G-force, deceleration, and wind blast on humans. Stapp suffered broken bones and retinal hemorrhages, but suffered no permanent damage. Stapp also became an early advocate of seatbelts and shoulder harnesses in cars. He created an automobile test facility and conducted the first-ever crash tests with dummies; tests that are still used for crash safety ratings. Despite taking part in so many dangerous tests, Stapp died peacefully at his home in Alamogordo, New Mexico, at the age of 89.
1. The doctor who kept notes while dying from a cocaine overdose.
In what may be the greatest demonstration of altruism in medical history, Edwin Katskee literally gave his life to test the effects of cocaine to its addicts. The main difference of Dr. Katskee with any other scientist included in this list is that he knew his death was inevitable when he was injecting a deadly dose of cocaine into his veins. He didn’t seek help, but instead he tried to calmly record his observations as the drug took effect. He described what he had done as a “scientific experiment with death.” It’s important to note, however, that by the year of his death (1936), Dr. Katskee’s life began to fall apart.
In August of that year, his wife filed for divorce citing “extreme cruelty” and asked for custody of their two young children. Not long afterward, Dr. Katskee experienced a series of health crises, including gall bladder surgery and spending time in a sanitarium. Two months later, his uncle committed suicide following a nervous breakdown. Suicide or not, the fact remains that Dr. Katskee sacrificed his life in order to find out what the addicts experience themselves during an overdose. Unfortunately, his notes as scattered as they were and without proper timekeeping, did not prove useful for his colleagues.
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