These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease

Larry Holzwarth - April 19, 2020

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Actor Gary Cooper with Babe Ruth in the 1942 film Pride of the Yankees. Cooper played Ruth’s teammate Lou Gehrig. Wikimedia

8. Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth is remembered for his prodigious feats on the baseball diamond, and his equally prodigious appetite for life. During the heyday of his baseball career, the Roaring Twenties, Ruth knew every speakeasy and brothel in the cities which comprised the American League. Although he slowed down his partying near the end of his career, he continued to enjoy the good life well into retirement. He smoked heavily, both cigars and cigarettes. He posed for both White Owl Cigars and Raleigh Cigarettes for their advertising posters and magazine inserts, and used their products assiduously. In late 1946 he suffered recurring severe headaches, sore throat, and blurred vision. His doctors diagnosed a rare form of cancer, not of the throat as so often reported, but in his neck.

Ruth had a tumor which ran from his nasal passages to the base of his skull, surrounding the carotid artery. In the summer of 1947 Ruth received chemotherapy treatments, still experimental, in conjunction with the radiation treatments already underway. The particular chemotherapy offered to Ruth was based on the same compound as mustard gas, and had only been tested on mice before Ruth received it. Ruth became the first to receive the drug, as well as one of the first to receive chemotherapy and radiation in a combined, two-pronged approach, described to him as risky and potentially fatal. He approved the treatment, acknowledging that medical science could learn even should it fail for him. There was brief improvement for a few weeks. Babe Ruth died of his cancer in August, 1948. In the 1950s the drug used on him, teropterin, became widely available.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Major Walter Reed used volunteers from the Army and civilian population to conduct experiments with yellow fever. Wikimedia

9. The US Army Yellow Fever Commission volunteers

During the American study into the manner of transmission of yellow fever in Cuba in 1900-01, testing on human beings became the primary source of information. A landmark event in the development of the principle of informed consent, the Army Commission deliberately infected volunteers with blood extracted from yellow fever victims. It also exposed them to mosquitoes which fed on patients with yellow fever before biting the volunteers. Volunteers also faced exposure to blankets and other items used by known yellow fever victims, in an experiment to determine of particles known as fomites carried the disease between persons.

The volunteers received compensation, for participating and additional compensation if they got sick. They came from the Army, the Navy, the Nursing Corps, and from civilian contractors, both American and Cuban. Not all the volunteers are known today, the identities of some have been lost to history. Many volunteers were exposed, did not become ill, and forgotten. Others intervened to prevent more important, in the volunteer’s opinion, members of the commission from exposing themselves to a dangerous disease. The Commission studied the disease in three phases; infected bedding and clothing; mosquito borne disease; blood injection experiments. Only one volunteer participated in all three phases, according to records of the commission, Warren Jernegan.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Yellow fever dormitory during the commission’s study of how the disease spread, 1901. US Army

10. Some of the volunteers in the yellow fever experiments.

On January 21, 1901, Private John Andrus of the US Army Hospital Corps overheard Walter Reed and James Carroll arguing over Reed’s determination to have himself deliberately exposed to yellow fever. Knowing Reed’s importance to the commission, Andrus offered to replace him as a potential victim of the disease. Andrus received an injection of blood from a yellow fever patient on January 25, and first exhibited symptoms of yellow fever several days later, though he recovered from the disease. Andrus later wrote of his experiences both with the disease and serving with the commission, in which much of what is known of the experiments and research is found. He later received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service with the commission.

John Bullard, an American citizen and one of two civilian volunteers, allowed himself to be injected with the blood of an infected patient for less altruistic reasons. Bullard later wrote, “Volunteering to Dr. Carroll for experimental yellow fever was, I can assure you, a cold-blooded business proposition. There were no heroics in it as far as I was concerned…I suspected that I would probably get it spontaneously anyhow, so I decided I’d rather have it under favorable circumstance”. The favorable circumstance referred to by Bullard included free medical care should he contract the disease, and the financial remuneration offered by the time of the third phase, which ranged from $8,000 to $20,000 expressed in terms of today’s dollar.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Dr. James Carroll inoculated himself with yellow fever, survived the initial bout with the disease, but died of complications it caused years later. Wikimedia

11. James Carroll and the US Army Yellow Fever Commission

During the first phase of the yellow fever experiments in Cuba (infection by mosquito bite), at first relatively few volunteers bitten by mosquitoes developed cases of yellow fever. In the late summer, 1900. Walter Reed, who supported the mosquito vector theory postulated by Carlos Finlay, left Cuba for the United States. Drs. Lazear and James Carroll supervised the testing in his absence. In August, the two doctors studied the results accumulated to that point, and found little to support the mosquito vector theory. Both concluded the mosquito bite testing provided more data to disprove the theory than to support it, and both decided to inoculate themselves via mosquito bite. They intended to disprove the mosquito vector theory and to answer rising criticism over using human beings as test subjects.

Lazear inoculated himself on August 16, and Carroll followed on August 27. Carroll did not expect to develop yellow fever, and was surprised when he did just a few days later. The same day he became ill Lazear inoculated, via mosquito, Army private William Dean. Dean also developed yellow fever within a few days. Both Carroll and Dean survived the illness, but a still unconvinced Lazear inoculated himself via mosquito bite on September 13, dying of the ensuing yellow fever a week later. Although Carroll survived the bout with yellow fever in Cuba and returned to the United States, he eventually died of complications contracted from the disease in 1907.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
The number of Americans deployed to malarial climates in World War II, such as these Marines on Guadalcanal, created a demand for new antimalarial drugs to protect them. US Navy

12. Malaria in World War II

At the beginning of American involvement in World War II the United States maintained stocks of quinine, the primary medication administered for the treatment of malaria. At the time quinine was made from the bark of the cinchona tree. By the end of the 19th century the Dutch colony of Java produced 97% of the world’s cinchona bark from a genus of the tree most suitable for the manufacture of quinine. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured nearly all of the regions where cinchona bark suitable for quinine was produced. American stocks of quinine were rapidly depleted at the same time as hundreds of thousands of Americans were dispatched to malaria plagued regions of the world.

Tens of thousands of Americans died of malaria in the early years of World War II as researchers struggled to find substitutes for quinine. Experiments are a part of the development of any new drug, and test groups are required to evaluate the effectiveness of the new means of treatment. With Americans fighting around the world, and others at home working to support the war effort, the means of finding suitable volunteers proved elusive. Men in their prime, in relatively good health, in large enough numbers simply weren’t available until America looked inward, to its prisons, in the search for volunteers. Researchers found several prisoners willing to risk exposure to malaria and other tropical diseases as part of the American war effort.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois, the site of testing on volunteer prisoners for new treatments for malaria. Wikimedia

13. American prisoners in malaria treatment experiments

One malaria study using prisoners as volunteers took place at Stateville Penitentiary, outside Joliet, Illinois, conducted by the University of Chicago, the State Department, and the US Army. Stateville Penitentiary offered a suitable environment in that all daily activities of the volunteers were monitored closely. The researchers offered the volunteers, all white men of similar ages and health conditions, financial inducements of $25 – $100, a small fortune in the economy of the prison system. They isolated the volunteers on a floor of the prison hospital, separating them from the general population, and offered additional inducements including parole reviews and extra privileges. All of the inmate participants volunteered for the study; none were exposed to malaria without their consent.

University of Chicago doctors bred a supply of the appropriate mosquitoes to infect the volunteers. They infected the mosquitoes with a strain of malaria obtained from a military patient who contracted the disease in the Pacific. The volunteers who developed malaria received treatment using a variety of newly developed anti-malarial drugs, including the first use on humans of primaquine. The experimentation at Stateville Penitentiary drew considerable scrutiny from the press at the time, including a photo article in Life Magazine, though by the time the results of the experiments led to a suitable drug for malaria, the war had ended. Primaquine remains the primary anti-malarial drug for most forms of the disease in the 21st century.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Nathan Leopold (right) with fellow murderer Richard Loeb at the time of their trial. Bundesarchiv

14. Nathan Leopold and malaria research

Nathan Leopold does not merit much sympathy from those studying his story. One half of the murderous duo Leopold and Loeb, Nathan participated in the kidnaping and murder of 14-year old Bobby Franks in May, 1924. The murder, a thrill killing, served as the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope, and several later works. Despite benefiting from a defense mounted by noted American attorney Clarence Darrow, Leopold and Loeb were convicted and sentenced to life plus 99 years in prison. Loeb was murdered in Stateville Penitentiary in 1936 (his murderer was tried and acquitted). Leopold was still serving his sentence, at the age of 39, when the malaria experiments began at Stateville. He volunteered, beginning as a test subject.

Leopold underwent inoculation by mosquito vector, developed malaria symptoms, and served as a case study for several anti-malarial treatments and drugs. He continued in the experiment through its end, in a variety of additional roles, including recruiting new volunteers. Leopold also served as an observer to validate experiments, and dissected mosquitoes under supervision. He later served as an x-ray technician. He earned praise for his various roles from the University of Chicago and the US Army, as well as from prison officials. In 1958 he was released from prison, and eventually settled in Puerto Rico, where he taught at the University of Puerto Rico and conducted research into leprosy at the University Hospital.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
US military authorities battled the scourge of venereal diseases throughout the Second World War. Wikimedia

15. American prisoners in gonorrhea treatment experiments

American prisoners held in custody by both states and the federal government also volunteered for their bodies to be used as the platform for medical experiments regarding venereal diseases during World War II. Venereal diseases posed a serious, and sometimes critical, problem for the United States military forces during the Second World War. At the start of American involvement in the war, a case of gonorrhea required a course of hospital treatment for 30 days. Syphilis required a grueling course of treatment which lasted six months. The costs of the treatments and the loss of the man-hours imposed burdens on the military, both in money and in operational readiness. The development of better drugs for treatment of venereal diseases became part of the military’s strategy for dealing with the crisis.

Volunteers for experimentation with new drugs again appeared in the nation’s prison population. In one study, conducted in the federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana, 241 prisoners were deliberately infected with venereal diseases in return for $100. They also obtained the promise of a letter of recommendation to their parole board, though some did not receive them, the promise forgotten after the war ended. The research included curative agents and prophylactics. The researchers eventually found the unreliability of inducing gonorrhea in test subjects rendered the tests invalid, and the results thus inconclusive. Other experiments, such as the famous Tuskegee Institute study, often used men who were not informed volunteers of the ordeal to which they submitted.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
The demands for plasma and whole blood during World War II created programs to develop substitutes from animals. Smithsonian

16. The search for blood and plasma substitutes during World War II

As it became evident that American involvement in the Second World War was inevitable, the American Red Cross and the National Research Council conducted a concentrated effort to increase stocks of plasma. Once US combat involvement began it became apparent that in many cases, including shock resulting from wounds, plasma transfusions were inadequate. Whole blood transfusions were required. The drive for a substitute for human blood, provided by donation, gathered steam. The research focused on a substitute for the proteins in human blood, chiefly albumin, provided from the blood of animals. In 1940 research programs focused on bovine blood as a potential source.

Clinical testing on bovine albumin for use in humans started in late 1940, and by 1941 several hopeful reports in testing it on other animals led to the recommendations of a controlled study for its use in humans. Studies on the use of bovine albumin in humans began in early 1942, in Minnesota, Massachusetts, and other locations. Casualties from the war fronts increased throughout 1942, particularly among the US Navy and Marines in the Pacific, and the demand for an effective and safe blood substitute rose daily. Once again, the call went out for volunteer inmates in American prisons to offer themselves as test cases. Inmates responded across the country. One was Arthur St. Germaine, in Massachusetts.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Norfolk Prison Colony circa 1930s. Joel Winslow Collection

17. Arthur St. Germain

Blood drives for donations of both whole blood and plasma preceded the bovine blood substitute experiments. The high rate of inmate response encouraged officials to offer incentives to prisoners to volunteer for the experiments. One such prison, Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts, had 200 prisoners volunteer, of which 64 received injections of bovine albumin to test its effectiveness in humans. One of them, Arthur St. Germaine, had completed 18 months of a 5-to-7 year sentence when he stepped forward to volunteer. How much of the risk he actually knew about is unknown, but the 27-year old was stricken with serum sickness in reaction to the injection and died in November, 1942. Several other inmates became seriously ill, though only St. Germaine died from the tests, which caused so much concern among the doctors and researchers they were canceled.

After his death, other inmates referred to St. Germaine as the “Prison Martyr”. The following year, Norfolk inmates raised over $7,000 in war bonds in a contest between prisons nationally. The winner gained the right to name an Army bomber. Having won the contest, the Norfolk inmates voted to name the bomber the Spirit of St. Germaine. St. Germaine was awarded a full pardon posthumously by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. Of the two hundred inmates who volunteered for the research, only 14 remained incarcerated at the end of the war three years later. Amazingly, following the death of St. Germaine and the illness of several others who participated in the tests, all but eight later told prison authorities they would volunteer again should the suspended program resume. It never did.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Humphrey Bogart with Lauren Bacall during a break on the filming of The Big Sleep. Wikimedia

18. Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart served in USS Leviathan, a converted steamship used as a troop transport during World War I. Spanish Flu ravaged the crew during one of its several crossings of the Atlantic, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt among its victims. He survived, as did the young Bogart. The latter went on to a career as an actor following the war. He developed the image, carefully crafted, of the tough, masculine, hero, unflappable and unbeatable. Among the iconic images presented by Bogart were the martini, a fedora, a trench coat, and an ever present cigarette. Bogie smoked onscreen and off, seemingly continuously, a cigarette dangling from his lips, the smoke curling around his face. An indelible part of his image, the cigarettes led to cancer in the 1950s.

Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1956, Bogart opted for an experimental surgery in an attempt to cure the disease. Surgeons removed his entire esophagus, attaching his stomach to the stub which remained. They also removed two lymph nodes and a rib. The surgery took over nine hours, and Bogie went home after follow-up chemotherapy. The experimental combination was not enough, and Bogart grew progressively weaker in the ensuing months. Another surgery in November, 1956, contributed little to his battle to beat cancer. Bogart died on January 15, 1957, the cancer having spread to his throat and larynx. Life expectancies for esophageal cancer, including the experimental treatments suffered by Humphrey Bogart have improved four-fold since his death.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Jesse Gelsinger died after volunteering for a study in gene therapy to develop a cure for a rare disease. Science History

19. Jesse Gelsinger

Jesse Gelsinger suffered from a relatively rare genetic disease of the liver, usually fatal at birth. His milder form of the illness allowed him to survive, based on a strictly controlled diet and a regimen of medications. Those suffering with the disease are unable to metabolize ammonia, which is produced by the body when breaking down proteins. Jesse was diagnosed with the disease at the age of two, leading to his growing up while taking more than four dozen different pills per day. Despite occasional severe health problems as a result of his illness, Jesse attended elementary and high school, developed a love for motorcycles, and worked a part-time job. In 1999, at the age of 18, he learned of a clinical trial for a potential treatment for the disease (known as OTCD) being held at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Jesse flew from his home in Tucson to take part in the study as a volunteer. The study included the addition of an enzyme to the OTC gene, preventing the buildup of ammonia to lethal levels in the body. Recipients of the virus normally developed mild flu-like symptoms. Jesse, the 18th person injected with the virus, developed symptoms including jaundice, liver failure, kidney failure, and lung failure. He was placed on life support within hours. Jesse died four days after being injected, after being declared brain dead. His death was a blow to the developing promise of gene therapy as a miracle cure for a variety of illnesses and conditions. Later investigators determined that Jesse had not been informed of several of the risks involved with the treatment when he volunteered to participate in the study.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Dr. Matthew Lukwiya died fighting the Ebola outbreak in Uganda. Matthew Lukwiya Foundation

20. Dr. Matthew Lukwiya

Matthew Lukwiya rose from being a bicycle riding tea smuggler in his pre-teen years to head of St. Mary’s Catholic Missionary Hospital in his native Uganda. During a rebellion there in 1989, Lukwiya offered himself to rebels attempting to abduct Italian nuns in their stead. He spent several days in their custody before they released him, still in his surgical clothes. Throughout the rebellion, Lord’s Resistance Movement, his hospital grounds served as a sanctuary for thousands of refugees seeking shelter and food. In 1990 Lukwiya went to Liverpool to study tropical diseases at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, earning a Masters of Science with the highest grades in the history of the school. He then returned to St. Mary’s, spurning an offer to teach at Liverpool.

During the 2000 Ebola outbreak, medical workers at St. Mary’s and other health facilities received support from the CDC, WHO, and other international health organizations. Lukwiya and others worked 14 hour shifts, seven days a week, for several weeks, after which they provided information to the various organizations. Several of the health care workers came down with the disease. Called upon to treat a co-worker in the middle of the night, Lukwiya donned protective clothing, but omitted to put on a face shield to protect his eyes. Likely fatigue and grogginess from being suddenly awakened caused the oversight. Lukwiya contracted the virus, and died nine days later on December 5, 2000. His body was buried the same day, by a group dressed in protective gear. During the burial one participant in the funeral sprayed his coffin with a bleach disinfectant. Mourners were kept at a distance until the burial was completed.

These People Risked their Lives to Advance Medicine and Cure Disease
Dr. Carlo Urbani was the first to determine SARS was caused by a previously unknown virus. It cost him his life. Wikimedia

21. Dr. Carlo Urbani

Dr. Carlo Urbani studied infectious and tropical diseases in Africa and Southeast Asia, as a prominent member of Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) beginning in the 1980s. In the 1990s he became a leading advocate against pharmaceutical companies and the high costs they charged for essential medicines in the treatment of diseases such as malaria and AIDS. The 1999 Nobel Peace Prize went to a delegation of which he was a leading member. He used the financial rewards from the Nobel Prize to promote access to medications for the world’s poor. By 2003 he was one of the world’s most respected authorities in the field of infectious diseases, working from his laboratory in Macerata, Italy.

That year the French Hospital of Hanoi called Dr. Urbani to consult on the case of Johnny Chen, an American with business affairs in Vietnam. In February, 2003, Urbani determined that Chen was suffering from a previously unknown virus, and not the influenza suspected by the doctors at the French Hospital. Urbani notified the WHO and helped establish quarantine and isolation procedures. Screening of travelers was adopted by the Vietnamese authorities in response to his urging. In March, Dr. Urbani flew to Bangkok, becoming ill on the airplane. Hospitalized in isolation, he died of the virus he had been the first to identify on March 29, 2003. He died from severe acute respiratory syndrome – SARS – a syndrome caused by the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-1. His quick actions and recommendations were credited with preventing the first outbreak of SARS from becoming a global pandemic.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Jesse Lazear”. Article, The History of Vaccines. Online

“Clara Louise Maass”. Article, American Association for the History of Nursing. Online

“Dr. Joseph Goldberger and the War of Pellagra”. Article, History, National Institutes of Health. Online

“How Marie Curie Brought X-Ray Machines To the Battlefield”. Timothy J. Jorgensen, October 11, 2017

“Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the discoverer of oxygen, and a very productive chemist”. John B. West, December 1, 2014

“Alexander Bogdanov: The Forgotten Pioneer of Blood Transfusion”. Douglas W. Huestis, Transfusion Medicine Reviews. October, 2007. Online

“Elizabeth Fleischman-Ascheim: Heroic Jewish Radiologist of San Francisco”. Article, Jewish Museum of the American West. Online

“No one told Babe Ruth he had cancer, but his death changed the way we fight it”. Eleanor Cummins, Popular Science. February 6, 2018

“A century of the US Army yellow fever research”. Michael McCarthy, The Lancet. June 2, 2001

“Major Walter Reed and the Eradication of Yellow Fever”. Patrick Feng, National Museum of the United States Army. Online

“Malaria in World War 2” Article, Army Heritage Center Foundation. Online

“The prisoner as model organism: malaria research at Stateville Penitentiary”. Nathaniel Comfort, National Institutes of Health. Online

“The Redemption of Nathan Leopold, Maybe”. Helen Andrews, First Things. January 29, 2013. Online

“Ugly past of U.S. human experiments uncovered”. Mike Stobbe, NBC News. February 28, 2011. Online

“World War II medical experiments make heroes behind bars”. Emily Sweeney, The Boston Globe. January 13, 2013

“The Death of Jesse Gelsinger, 20 Years Later”. Meir Rinde, Distillations, Science History Institute. June 4, 2019

“The death of Dr. Matthew”. James Astill, The Guardian. January 2, 2001

“WHO remembers Dr. Carlo Urbani as a hero who fought SARS”. Article. World Health Organization. April 12, 2018. Online