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I Can't Believe They Did That: Human Guinea Pigs

A look at some of history's most famous scientists who experimented upon themselves.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science, Health

Skeptoid Podcast #305
April 10, 2012
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Col. John Stapp
Col. John Stapp and his test track
Photo credit: US Air Force

Today we're going to take a look at one of the most interesting facets of science: Cases where researchers and volunteers have put themselves on the line for the sake of knowledge. There are a lot of cases where actual human experimentation is too risky. Even when volunteers are willing to undergo dangerous testing, ethics standards often prohibit their doing so. But nevertheless, throughout the history of science, a few maverick scientists and their volunteers have decided to walk the walk. They willingly, consensually, "took one for the team" and advanced our knowledge, with varying results. What follows are some of my favorite examples, the wildest and craziest cases that were undertaken by informed subjects with full knowledge of the possible consequences.

One of the best known such scientists was Col. John Stapp, a flight surgeon with the United States Air Force. Beginning in 1947, Stapp made dozens of runs in the famous rocket sled at what's now Edwards Air Force Base, testing the limits of human endurance of acceleration and deceleration. The sled named Gee Whiz was basically just a chair attached to rocket engines, wearing magnesium slippers that wrapped around the surface of railroad tracks to keep them from flying off. The Gee Whiz frequently destroyed equipment and the test dummy, Oscar Eightball. Stapp himself made 29 runs, and eventually allowed seven of his staff to make manned runs as well. Stapp's final run was at an even longer track in New Mexico on a much more powerful sled. He hit 632 mph (over 1,000 kph), shot past Joseph Kittinger flying a T-33 camera plane, and exploded into the lake of water that served as the brake. He sustained 46.2 Gs of force, equivalent to crashing your car into a brick wall at 120 mph. It burst all the capillaries in his eyes, turning them completely red, and gave him vision problems for the rest of his life. Stapp's earlier sled runs gave him two broken wrists, a broken collarbone, a sandblasted face, cracked ribs, several concussions, and he even had dental fillings shoot out of his mouth. The data he collected revolutionized aircraft seating, restraint, and ejection systems, and even provided the data that finally compelled Congress to require seatbelts in automobiles.

Then there's the case of Werner Forssmann, a young German doctor in residence, who, in 1929 at the age of only 25, thought that it might be possible to get a catheter into a patient's heart by inserting it into a vein in the elbow. He couldn't get permission from anybody to try it, and so he went maverick. He tricked the nurse who thought the procedure was going to be tried on her, and got the catheter inserted into his own arm. He got it inserted most of the way, but then realized he couldn't continue without X-ray guidance. With the catheter still inserted, Forssmann walked downstairs to the hospital's X-ray department and stood in front of a mirror so he could see the catheter inside his own chest on a fluoroscope screen, a sort of live X-ray television. He completed the procedure successfully, inserting 60 cm (2 feet) of tube reaching all the way into his own right atrium, and took an X-ray photo as proof of his success. Although there was a lot of controversy about his action, and he ended up being unable to work in the field and had to become a urologist, the technique has become a foundation of cardiology. In 1956, Forssmann received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his bold action.

One question that's never been completely solved is exactly what triggers the brain to go into panic mode and force you to gasp for air when you're trying to hold your breath. Suspecting that it might be the lack of contraction of breathing muscles, researcher Moran Campbell had his entire musculature paralyzed with intravenous curare, except for one forearm protected with a blood pressure cuff, with which he could signal. His heart, which is a different muscle type, would continue to beat but he could not breathe or move any part of his body except the one forearm. He was kept alive with a mechanical ventilator, which was then switched off, and observers watched to see what would happen. Breathless, Campbell signaled no discomfort for a full four minutes, when an attending anesthesiologist decided his blood CO2 was too high and the ventilator was switched back on. A second volunteer underwent the same test with the same results. But then in 1989, a team at Harvard did a similar experiment, although they surreptitiously added CO2 gas to the ventilated air, causing the subjects to signal distress immediately. The question remains unanswered, but the volunteers did not have to remain paralyzed, as the curare eventually wears off.

Another famous case was when the US Food & Drug Administration decided in 1903 to test various food preservatives, to see whether they could be used safely, and in what quantities. For five years, a group of young Department of Agriculture volunteers signed on for six-month terms during which they ate all their meals in a special dining room. At first, certain ingredients in the meals were prepared with one of the chemical preservatives being tested, but soon the program switched to serving regular, untreated meals and the men were given prescribed doses of various preservatives in capsule form. The program, established by Dr. Harvey Wiley, chief chemist of the FDA, was officially called the "hygiene table" but the press quickly gave it the name by which we know it today, the "poison squad". Both the volunteers and the press were given full knowledge of the program's details, and the volunteers were offered only the free meals as compensation.

Also braving poisons were J. S. Haldane, the Scottish physiologist, and his biologist son, J. B. S. Haldane, both mustachioed pipe-smokers in the grand tradition of Colonial Britain. Both were famous for their self-experimentation. Haldane the elder invented the gas mask that saved so many lives during World War I, largely as a result of spending time on the front lines analyzing poison gases, rushing to the scene whenever an attack was reported. He's also known for pioneering the use of the proverbial canary to detect dangerous gases in mines during the 1890s. Much twentieth century knowledge of the effects of various gases came from Haldane sealing himself inside a chamber and breathing them, noting any physiological and psychological effects.

Haldane the younger's destiny was sealed from the time he was a young boy; his father once educated him by taking him to a mine filled with firedamp gas and had him recite Shakespeare until he passed out. The younger became an expert on the effects of deep diving and the problems faced when rescuing submariners. He used a Royal Navy-funded compression chamber to subject himself and numerous volunteers to near-lethal diving conditions. He once went into a seizure during which he crushed a vertebrae. On other occasions, he suffered a collapsed lung, nerve damage to his spine resulting in several years of partial paralysis, countless nosebleeds, and frequently blew out his eardrums. His famous quote is "The drum generally heals up; and 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."

Jonas Salk is well known as the creator of the vaccine against polio. While soldiers fought overseas in World War II and Korea, this was the war being fought on the home front in the United States. When in 1955 it was publicly announced that Salk's new killed-virus vaccine was safe and effective, and new incidences of polio dropped to practically zero, the celebration was massive. But to get there, at some early point in the research, the first volunteers would need to be injected with the virus itself. Killed virus, yes; but no one knew what the result would be. Then one day, at a press conference, Jonas Salk announced that the problem of finding volunteers had already been solved. He had been the first to receive it, followed by his wife and children. Salk and his staff watched and waited, and none of the first volunteers showed any sign of polio. It was a success.

One of Salk's fellow New York University alumni was US Army surgeon Major Walter Reed. In making possible the construction of the Panama Canal, Reed had to first eradicate yellow fever. He did this by tracing the disease vector to infected mosquitos, and proved it by having volunteers be deliberately bitten in rooms containing the annoying bugs. We thus learned for a fact how yellow fever was transmitted, and were finally able to take steps to reduce its proliferation by going after the mosquitos.

Max Joseph von Pettenkofer was a doctor who studied hygiene, searching for ways to prevent the spread of cholera and typhus in countries that had unsanitary water supplies. One of his theories, which turned out to be wrong, was that the bacteria responsible for cholera was not dangerous unless it had incubated in warm, moist soil. To prove this, he ingested 1 cc of a cholera culture obtained from the stool of a recently deceased patient in 1892. Pettenkofer, and several of his students who followed the same experiment, contracted only mild cases and all recovered.

Just a few years earlier, in Peru in 1885, medical student Daniel Carrión was puzzling over Oroya fever. This infectious disease had been endemic in Peruvian populations since before recorded history. It wasn't known at the time, but it was caused by a bacteria transmitted by sand flies. Oroya fever has two stages: chronic and acute. In trying to find a link between the two, Carrión had himself injected with blood drawn from a boy with the chronic form of the disease. Although Oroya fever was only rarely fatal, Carrión developed the acute form, thus proving that both were caused by the same bacterium; and soon died. Twenty years later, those who followed his research identified the bacterium, and it's now easily treatable. Acute Oroya fever was renamed Carrión's Disease, and the young man who gave it all was declared a national hero. A stadium, a hospital, a university, and even a Peruvian province are named after him. And once a year, Peru celebrates their Día de la Medicina Peruana, the national Day of Peruvian Medicine, on October 5, the anniversary of Carrión's death.

Those who put themselves on the line don't always win their gambles. And so, the next time October 5 comes around, lift your glass and toast to those who took one for the team. Sometimes the circumstances made it impossible to do it any other way, sometimes there just wasn't enough information; but in all these cases, the scientists knew the risks and took the leap, and the state of our knowledge today is the better for it.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "I Can't Believe They Did That: Human Guinea Pigs." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 10 Apr 2012. Web. 16 Jan 2017. <>


References & Further Reading

Dendy, L., Boring, M. Guinea Pig Scientists. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2005.

Denenberg, D., Roscoe, L. 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet. Brookfield: Millbrook Press, 2001. 98-99.

Garcia, G., Rodriguez, A. "Daniel Alcides Carrión y su aporte al conocimiento clínico de la fiebre de la Oroya y verruga peruana." Cuaderno de Historia. 1 Jan. 1995, Volume 80.

Jones, N. "Research in Exercise Physiology and Dyspnea at McMaster University." Canadian Respiratory Journal. 1 Oct. 2007, Volume 14, Number 7: 399.

Kevles, D. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf, 1985. 122-128.

Lewis, C. "The “Poison Squad” and the Advent of Food and Drug Regulation." U.S. Food and Drug Administration Consumer Magazine. 1 Nov. 2002, Volume 36.

Spark, N. A History of Murphy's Law. Los Angeles: Nick T. Spark, 2003.

Trout, D. "Max Josef von Pettenkofer (1818-1901): A Biographical Sketch." The Journal of Nutrition. 1 Sep. 1977, Number 107: 1569-1574.


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