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10 Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves

Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves

Self-experimentation is a discouraged yet a fairly common practice among scientists, especially in the field of medicine. Scientists tend to resort to it if they want the results faster, need a first-hand account of what happens, don’t wish to wait for the tedious bureaucracy to take its course, or because of ethical issues that might prevent volunteers from taking the risk. Many distinguished scientists and Nobel laureates have been known to experiment on themselves, some of them even receiving the Nobel Prize because of it. So, here are a few of these amazing scientists who experimented on themselves.


1. In 1892, Max Joseph von Pettenkofer deliberately drank a broth containing a large dose of cholera bacteria to disprove Robert Koch’s theory that the bacteria alone is the cause of the disease. Luckily, Pettenkofer escaped with just mild symptoms. 

Max Pettenkofer and Robert Koch
Image Source: nih, nih

Pettenkofer was a Bavarian chemist and hygienist well-known for his work in proper sewage disposal, practical hygiene, fresh air, and good water. Interestingly, he was also an anticontagionist and did not believe that bacteria caused diseases. This belief put him at odds with many other contemporary scientists, especially Robert Koch, the German physician and microbiologist who identified the causes for tuberculosis, anthrax, and cholera, and provided experimental support that these diseases are infectious.

One of the conflicts between Pettenkofer and Koch was over cholera. To prove Koch wrong, Pettenkofer drank the cholera-laden bouillon on October 7 in the presence of witnesses. He also consumed sodium bicarbonate to neutralize his stomach acids after Koch’s suggestion that the acid can kill the bacteria. For a week after that, Pettenkofer suffered only mild symptoms though he even claimed those were not because of cholera. (source)

2. In 1900, US Army doctors James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte, and Jesse Lazear let themselves be bitten by yellow-fever-carrying mosquitoes to prove that they are responsible for the disease’s spread. Their efforts proved the mosquito-borne nature of yellow fever and saved many lives. 

Jesse William Lazear and James Carroll
Image Source: National Library of Medicine, wikipedia

Carroll and Lazear were part of a research team led by Walter Reed who was following the work started by the Cuban doctor and scientist Carlos Finlay. In 1881, Finlay proposed that yellow fever could be transmitted by mosquitoes rather than human contact. In order to study the disease, Carroll and Lazear deliberately let an infected mosquito bite them in early September of 1900. Lazear died on the 26th of that month, but Carroll recovered. Seven years later, however, Carroll died of the same disease. (source)

3. In 1921, at the age of 60, Evan O’Neill Kane became the first person to perform a self-surgery to remove his appendix. He wanted to ensure that the procedure could be tolerated with just local anesthesia by patients on whom general anesthesia cannot be used. 

Evan O'Neill Kane
Image Source: medicaldaily

Evan O’Neill Kane was a surgeon from Pennsylvania, United States, is well known for operating on himself three times. The first being in 1919 when he performed an amputation on one of his own fingers that was infected. The second was on February 15, 1921, when he removed his appendix under local anesthesia with the help of mirrors. Kane successfully finished the procedure even though back then it was major surgery and required a much larger incision than it does today.

Kane wanted to experience the surgery from the patient’s perspective and was planning to use local anesthesia during future operations. He believed that ether, the general anesthesia used at that time, was more dangerous than local anesthesia such as novocaine, a then-recent replacement of cocaine, which he used during his surgery. His third self-surgery happened in 1932 at the age of 70 when repaired his inguinal hernia under a local anesthetic. The operation was finished in 55 minutes, and he was back to work in the operating theater after 36 hours. (source)

4. In 1924, Russian scientist Alexander Bogdanov, hoping to achieve everlasting life, began blood transfusion experiments on himself with blood from those younger than him. He died after using blood from a student with malaria who completely recovered after that. 

Alexander Bogdanov and Blood Transfusion Apparatus
Image Source: wellcomecollection, wikipedia

Alexander Bogdanov was a Russian physician, political activist, economist, as well as a science fiction writer with widely varying interests from philosophy to medicine. He was also known for inventing “tectology” which is now considered a precursor of systems theory and aspects of synergetics. One of his interests in the field of medicine pertains to human rejuvenation through blood transfusion.

Bogdanov began experimenting with blood from volunteers among whom was Vladimir Lenin’s younger sister, Maria Ulyanova. He founded the Institute for Hematology and Blood Transfusions later named after him. One of the transfusions cost him his life and was done with the blood from a student suffering from malaria and tuberculosis. While some scholars believe that his death could have been suicide, others attribute it to the lack of understanding of blood type incompatibility at the time. (source)

5. In 1929, Werner Forssmann became the first man to perform cardiac catheterization when he did it on himself and walked down to the radiology department so he could guide the catheter further towards the heart under a fluoroscope. He was later was fired, but received Nobel Prize in 1956.

Werner Forssmann and Midline Cardiac Catheter
Image Source: BruceBlaus, nobelprize

Werner Forssmann was a German physician who was working in Eberswalde when he performed the first human cardiac catheterization on himself. He ignored his department chief’s orders and persuaded Gerda Ditzen, the operating-room nurse, who only agreed for the procedure to be performed on her instead. However, Forssmann tricked Ditzen. He restrained her to the operating table and only pretended to give her local anesthesia and cut her arm while he actually did it to himself.

Forssmann inserted a urinary catheter into his vein by at time Ditzen realized what was happening. He released her and they walked to the X-ray department on the floor below where he further inserted the catheter into his right ventricular cavity. In 1932, after working in an unpaid position at the Berliner Charité Hospital, Forssmann was forced to leave for not meeting scientific expectations.

Unable to get a job as a cardiologist, Forssmann went on to study urology and later became Chief of the Surgical Clinic at both the City Hospital at Dresden-Friedrichstadt and the Robert Koch Hospital. In 1956, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine along with André Frédéric Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards who developed ways of applying his technique. (source)

6. In 1933, Allan Blair deliberately let a black widow spider bite him to prove to those who doubted that the symptoms of the victims were the result of the bite. Blair had to be hospitalized and was in great pain for several days.

Allan Walker Blair and Black Widow
Image Source: mrbloggins, James Gathany

Allan Walker Blair was a professor at the medical school of the University of Alabama and is known for proving that black widow spiders are toxic to humans. Back then, many believed that the venom is not dangerous to humans. Only a few tests were conducted back then and for various reasons were considered invalid.

Apart from disproving these myths, Blair also hoped to find out whether the bite provided victims with any immunity from the effects. The first bite itself was so painful that he decided not to try a second time. He managed to chronicle the effects on himself for two hours until the pain became unbearable and his assistant took over. He had to stay in the hospital for two days but fully recovered from the bite. (source)

7. In the 1950s, Leo Sternbach discovered a class of tranquilizers called “benzodiazepines” which he often tested on himself. Two of them are the now widely-known and used—Librium and Valium.

Leo Sternbach and Valium
Image Source: Hoffman-La Roche, Tmeers91

Leo Sternbach was a Polish-Jewish chemist who, while working for Hoffmann-La Roche in Nutley, New Jersey, discovered the drugs Arfonad, Klonopin, Rohypnol, Mogadon, Dalmane, as well as Valium, and Librium. He discovered Librium in 1956, and it was approved for use in 1960. Valium is the improved version of Librium and was released in 1963. Its discovery is credited to his hunch about compounds he had tested as dyes years ago in Poland. His hypothesis, however, got him nowhere.

Two years later, when his colleague found two bottles of the old experiments with the compounds still in them, Sterbach decided to try again. He tinkered with the molecular structure and produced a new version which was tested on mice, cats, and monkeys. Interestingly, though the drug tranquilized the animals, it did not make them unconscious. So, like with many of the other drugs he developed, he tried the new compound on himself to prove it was successful. Between 1969 and 1982, Valium became very popular peaking at over 2.3 billion doses sold in 1978. (1, 2)

8. In 1954, John Stapp strapped himself to a rocket sled in order to study the effects of deceleration on human beings. He reached 46.2 g and the speed of 632 meters per hour, making him the fastest man on land.

John Stapp Riding the Rocket Sled
Image Source: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force

John Stapp was a biophysicist and physician who entered the U.S. Army Air Corps as a flight surgeon. His first assignment was to test oxygen systems in unpressurized aircraft. He solved many problems and did a lot of research while working there which allowed new, high-altitude aircraft, HALO-insertion techniques, and helped pioneer many developments in the US space program.

On December 10, 1954, as part of his research on the effects of acceleration and deceleration on humans, Stapp rode the decelerator sled at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. He showed humans can withstand at least 46.2 g with a proper harness. At 632 meters per hour (1,017 kilometers per hour), he broke the land speed record as the fastest man on earth. Stapp is also was credited for popularizing and authoring the final version of Murphy’s Law—”Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” (source)

9. In 1984, Barry Marshall drank a broth containing Helicobacter pylori to prove that it was the bacteria and not stress or spicy food that causes peptic ulcers. In 2005, he and his long-time collaborator, Robin Warren, were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the bacteria.

Barry Marshall and H.Pylori
Image Source: NSF, wikipedia

Barry Marshall is an Australian physician and Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Western Australia. While working as a registrar in medicine at the Royal Perth Hospital, he and pathologist Robin Warren studied H. pylori and formed their hypothesis about the cause of peptic ulcers and gastric cancer. The theory was at the time mocked by other scientists and doctors there who believed bacteria could not survive the acidic environment of the stomach.

When Marshall and Warren submitted their findings about H. pylori cultures in 1983 to the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, their paper was turned down, receiving a rating in the bottom 10% of those submitted that year. In 1984, when attempts to infect piglets failed, Marshall drank a broth containing the bacteria expecting the symptoms not to develop for years.

But, in just three days, he developed nausea and bad breath. In five to eight days, there was achlorhydric (no acid) vomiting, and his stomach was badly inflamed A biopsy showed the bacteria had colonized. After 14 days, Marshall took antibiotics and recovered. (source)

10. In 1998, Kevin Warwick had an array implanted in his arm with which he was able to connect to the Internet at Columbia University and control a robotic arm at the University of Reading as well as get sensory feedback from it.

Kevin Warwick is a British researcher well-known for his research on interfaces between a computer and the human nervous system as well as research in biomedical engineering, control systems, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The most famous research project of his is “Project Cyborg,” which also earned him the nickname “Captain Cyborg.”

The first stage of the project began on August 24, 1998, in which a simple RFID transmitter was implanted under Warwick’s skin. With it, he was able to control doors, lights, heaters, and other computer-controlled devices nearby. The second stage was interfacing with a complex neural interface created by Dr. Mark Gasson and his team at the University of Reading directly from Warwick’s nervous system. The interface was implanted on March 14, 2002, from which he successfully was able to control a robotic arm. (source)

Also see: David Reimer: The Boy Who Was Forced to Be a Girl in a Controversial Nature Vs. Nurture Experiment


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