The vomit sauna
A special place must be reserved in the annals of self-experimentation for medical student Stubbins Ffirth, who conducted a series of increasingly revolting experiments in the early 19th century to prove that yellow fever was not contagious. Ffirth started off by pouring “fresh black vomit” from a patient with yellow fever into cuts in his arm. He didn’t get yellow fever. Emboldened by this success, Ffirth graduated to dribbling the vomit into his eyes and smearing assorted other bodily fluids from yellow-fever sufferers over his person – including blood, spit, sweat and urine. He even sat in a “vomit sauna” full of heated regurgitation vapors, which caused him “great pain in [his] head”, but left him in rude health. Finally, he took to actually ingesting the vomit – first in pill form, then straight from a patient’s mouth. Since he still didn’t get ill, he considered the case proven. Presumably others did too, since he was in due course awarded his medical doctorate.
But they were wrong: yellow fever is contagious, albeit only if directly transmitted into the bloodstream. That was proven by another self-experimenter, US army surgeon Jesse Lazear, who allowed himself to be bitten by yellow fever-infected mosquitoes in the early 1900s. Ironically, the mosquito whose bite proved fatal to Lazear was reportedly not one of his experimental specimens, but a wild specimen.
August Bier’s leaking spine
In 1898, German surgeon August Bier invented spinal anesthesia, which involved a small dose of cocaine being injected into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the spinal cord. That was a great improvement on existing methods of general anesthesia, but how effective was it? To find out, Bier decided to be anaesthetized himself. But things didn’t go as planned for Bier – or for his hapless assistant, Augustus Hildebrandt. He was supposed to administer the cocaine but, thanks to a mix-up with the equipment, Bier was left with a hole in his neck from which cerebrospinal fluid began to flow. Rather than abandon the effort, however, the two men switched places. Once Hildebrandt had been anaesthetized, Bier stabbed, hammered and burned his assistant, pulled out his pubic hairs and – presumably eager to leave no stone unturned in testing the new method’s efficiency – squashed his testicles. Once the cocaine had worn off, the pair went out for a boozy dinner, despite their injuries. Both suffered terribly in subsequent days but, while Bier took it easy as he recovered, Hildebrandt had to stand in for his boss at work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he subsequently fell out with Bier, becoming one of his fiercest critics and denying his discovery of spinal anesthesia – which rapidly caught on.
Pierre Curie’s arm
In June 1903, physicist Pierre Curie rolled up his sleeve and revealed a burn-like wound on his arm to a packed audience at the UK’s Royal Institution. The wound had been caused by a sample of radium salts, which he had taped to the skin of his arm for just 10 hours, more than 50 days earlier. During the course of his demonstration, Curie dropped some radium on the desk. The resulting contamination was still detectable, and in need of cleaning up, half a century later.
Curie and his wife, Marie, hoped that radium’s burning effect might prove useful in the treatment of cancer. But ironically, the radiation that the sample gave off – which was also emitted by various other chemicals to which the Curies routinely exposed themselves in the course of their work – were actually having a catastrophic effect on their health.
Both Pierre and Marie were constantly ill, tired and in pain, but their experiments did pave the way for the use of radium in medicine. Later in 1903, they shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research on radiation.
JBS Haldane’s smoking ear
One self-experimenter whose work had long-term personal consequences was the polymath JBS Haldane. Haldane wanted to build on work done by his father, John Scott Haldane, on the physiology of working Navy divers in the early 20th century. But whereas Haldane senior restricted himself to observation and measurement, his son took a more direct approach, repeatedly putting himself in a decompression chamber to investigate the physiological effects of various levels of gases. Haldane was motivated by concern for the welfare of sailors in disabled submarines, and his work led to a greatly improved understanding of nitrogen narcosis, as well as the safe use of various gases in breathing equipment. But he paid a high price, regularly experiencing seizures as a result of oxygen poisoning – one resulting in several crushed vertebrae. He also suffered from burst eardrums, but he was sanguine about the damage. “The drum generally heals up,” he said, adding, “if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”
Nathaniel Kleitman’s cave
In 1938, the eminent sleep researcher Nathanial Kleitman, accompanied by his research assistant Bruce Richardson, moved into Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Kleitman wanted to find out if humans could adapt to a longer, 28-hour day. The cave, 120 feet underground, offered a perfect environment to test the idea out: there was no natural light and the temperature remained constant, so there were no clues as to when it was day and night. It was not a comfortable environment, however: as well as being isolated and claustrophobic, the researchers found themselves sharing their beds with rats. A month later, they emerged, having discovered that while Kleitman had struggled to change his sleeping patterns, Richardson had adapted to the 28-hour cycle. Their studies helped to advance knowledge of human circadian rhythms, and spawned practical recommendations for shift-workers. Kleitman didn’t confine himself to caves: he later spent two weeks on board a submarine and a spell in the Arctic, with its long periods of darkness and daylight, in both cases studying sleep patterns.
Albert Hofmann’s bicycle ride
Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who discovered the drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) while looking for medically useful derivatives of the ergot fungus, is also credited as the first to experience an acid trip. Hofmann took his first trip, in 1943, by accident, apparently as a result of accidentally spilling the chemical on his fingertips in his Basel laboratory. He went home and “sank into a not-unpleasant condition”, a dreamy state in which he saw psychedelic images. His second experience was less agreeable: he deliberately took a dose that he believed to be light, but which led to intense effects while riding home on his bicycle – an episode that has become notorious in recreational pharmaceutical circles. While the chemical may have uses in psychiatry, its impact to date has arguably been more cultural than medical. Hofmann himself continued to take LSD, and advocate its careful use, for the rest of his life. Hofmann wasn’t alone in testing out psychedelic drugs on himself: US chemist Alexander Shulgin ingested many chemicals, including MDMA (ecstasy), leading to its use in psychotherapy, and Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary experimented with LSD on himself, to test, among other things, whether it could be used to treat alcoholism. Leary eventually lost his job after he began touting psychedelics as a hotline to spiritual enlightenment.
Barry Marshall’s bad breath
Junior doctor Barry Marshall was sure the medical establishment was wrong about the cause of stomach ulcers. The received wisdom was that they were caused primarily by lifestyle factors, but Marshall and pathologist Robin Warren were sure that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori was to blame. To prove their hypothesis, they needed to examine how the bacteria affected a healthy human volunteer – but as Marshall explained to New Scientist in a 2006 interview, “I was the only person informed enough to consent”. Marshall didn’t tell the hospital’s ethics committee what he had in mind, for fear of being turned down, or even his own wife, until after he had swallowed the bacteria. He was fine for three days, but then began vomiting; his wife complained that he had “putrid breath”. A biopsy taken 10 days later confirmed the bacteria had infected his stomach and that he had gastritis, which can eventually lead to ulcers. It still took another eight years for Marshall and Warren’s theory to be widely accepted, but their work eventually earned them the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
David Pritchard’s itchy skin
Various researchers have infected themselves with parasites. One such is biologist David Pritchard, who in 2004 allowed fifty hookworm larvae to burrow through his skin. Hookworms seem able to modify the body’s immune response in ways that may be useful in treating immune system disorders, such as asthma and Crohn’s disease. Such disorders are comparatively rare in places where hookworm infestation is common. Other members of Pritchard’s lab also infected themselves with the hookworms, which can survive for up to a decade but are easy to kill off with drugs. “They itch quite a bit when they go through the skin,” said Pritchard, but become really troublesome only when they reached his stomach. Fifty turned out to be too many: ten was a safer number. Trials are continuing to evaluate the treatment, including a test to see if the hookworms can help multiple sclerosis sufferers.