I Still Can't Believe They Did That: More Human Guinea Pigs
A further look at ten more scientists who experimented on themselves for the benefit of mankind.
by Brian Dunning
October 17, 2017
Back in 2012, Episode 305 looked at ten scientists who took one for the team. Sometimes human experimentation is the only way to learn something, but there are often ethical implications that forbid scientists from testing something on people. So, occasionally they go rogue — and test it on themselves, thoroughly aware of the potential risks, but willing to take their chance in the hope of helping mankind. Today we're going to look at ten more such heroes of science.
There are a lot of examples of scientists who died or were injured accidentally as the result of their work. Marie Curie died of a bone marrow disease which we now believe to have been caused by her frequent unprotected exposure to radiation, but if she'd known anything about that she probably would have worked differently. During the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, Louis Slotin died in a brief supercriticality while hand manipulating two subcritical hemispheres of a bomb core. But it was an accidental slip and he had no thought of risking his life. The history of science books are full of such tragic cases, and those pioneers deserve every ounce of respect, but they're not the cases we're focusing on today. In this episode — as in the first part — we're going to look at cases where human experimentation was the only way to learn what we had to find out, and where the scientists insisted on personally being the ones to take the risk. These are the people who went in with their eyes open and with full knowledge of the risks they were taking. Let's get started with:
It's one of the great stories illustrating the innate self-correcting nature of the scientific method. We had always thought that stress was the cause of stomach ulcers, but Dr. Marshall argued it was due to the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. After confirming that he tested negative for it, he drank a culture containing it; and within a week, developed a full-blown case including bad breath and vomiting. An endoscopy confirmed what he suspected. Then he took the appropriate antibiotic and was cured, as simple as that. He wrote it up for the journals, citing a "male volunteer" in the third person, but news eventually spread that it was himself.
As other researchers began replicating these results, the scientific consensus eventually shifted, exactly as it's supposed to. H pylori is now nearly universally accepted as the cause of stomach ulcers. In 2005, Marshall and his research partner Robin Warren shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Medical conditions like allergies and asthma are types of autoimmune conditions, where the body's immune system goes into an unwanted overdrive in the attempt to expel pathogens. Dr. Pritchard, an immunologist, noticed that populations in Papua New Guinea seemed to not have these conditions very much, but also had a lot of hookworm infections. He suspected a connection: that the hookworms, in order to protect themselves from the body's immune defenses, developed some way to switch off those defenses. Get infected with hookworms, and the hope was that your body would stop producing allergies and asthma. So what did he do? He infected himself with hookworms, in 2004.
His demonstration was enough of a success that he received permission to conduct limited human trials. It's still an emerging field, and though the Internet has plenty of groups who trumpet it as a miracle cure, doctors are not yet persuaded that anyone should rush out and seek a worm infection, or buy some creepy feces pills online.
By the mid 1800s, the effects of nitrous oxide as a recreational "laughing gas" were well known, and anecdotes suggested that it had a numbing effect against pain as well. After attending a lecture on the subject in 1844, Horace Wells, a dentist, contrived to attempt a tooth extraction on a patient under the influence — himself. No record survives indicating whether his tooth required an extraction, but nevertheless, extracted it was, by his colleague. Wells was so impressed that he began touring, giving demonstrations at dental schools and hospitals. Unfortunately these demonstrations were not always so successful. His very first, upon a medical student volunteer in Boston, caused the patient to cry out in pain, which cast something of a shadow over the rest of his tour. But thanks to Wells' sacrificial tooth, countless patients have had better experiences at the dentist.
World War II was not a time of great plenty for the British. Very early in the war it became apparent that food was going to be a problem for the civilian population as well as for the soldiers in the field. Elsie May Widdowson was a chemist and food scientist who set out to find the most basic yet healthy diet in the hopes of sustaining the nation through the war. With her research partner Robert McCance, they made themselves the test subjects. First they adopted strenuous daily activities of mountain climbing and bicycling to simulate the needs of the soldiers, and analyzed and tested eating nothing but the most common foods. In the end, Widdowson suggested bread, cabbage, and potatoes as the bare necessities. Also experimenting on herself with calcium injections, she persuaded bakers to add chalk to their flour to fight wartime rickets.
This Italian sociologist was not the first to try living in total isolation from the outside world and all its influences, but he was the one who took it to the extreme. Funded in part by NASA, Montalbini wanted to learn more about how the body deals with long-term isolation, physiologically as well as psychologically. He did at least four long-term stints in a dwelling deep underground in caves, beginning in 1987, when he stayed alone for 210 days. He later did stints at 364,166, and 235 days. During his experiments, he settled into a routine of staying awake for nearly a full day, then sleeping for no more than five hours. Each time he emerged having had no sense of time, he estimated that far fewer days had gone by, around half to two thirds the actual number.
For decades, Australian swimmers had been catching Irukandji syndrome, presumed to be caused by the sting of some unknown, unseen aquatic animal. It resulted in intense pain and potentially fatal hypertension and tachycardia, plus other unpleasant symptoms — similar to but distinct from the box jellyfish sting. Dr. Jack Barnes spent 20 years studying all the cases, and guessing that the offending beastie was small and transparent, found that they could be seen underwater by holding a light at an oblique angle. In 1961, Barnes, his 9-year-old son, and an accompanying lifeguard located two specimens, and all allowed themselves to be stung. Shortly thereafter, they all found themselves in the ambulance, and then at the Cairns Base Hospital, which had been his base for the investigations all these years. All suffered for 24 hours, but recovered fully. The case was solved, and the tiny thumbnail-sized jellyfish was soon named Carukia barnesi in his honor. A single specimen carries enough venom to kill 60 people.
On a lighter note, it's likely that your mother always told you that you should never crack your knuckles, because something bad would likely result. Possibly arthritis, possibly enlarged knuckles, who knows. Dr. Donald Unger chose to find out early in life. Beginning in his teens, he spent sixty years cracking the knuckles of his left hand only, and never his right. When he finally published the results in 1998, his conclusion was clear: No maladies of any kind were present in either hand, thus busting the myth — maybe. I'd hate to be the one to tell him that a sample size of one is interesting but not terribly meaningful. Anyway, he was awarded the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine.
By the year 1900 scientists had a pretty decent understanding of the anatomy of the nervous system, but not of the physiology. We'd known for some time that some nerves can take over the function of other damaged nerves, but Dr. Henry Head wanted some good data. You can't exactly sever the nerves of other people, so he had a colleague sever a peripheral sensory nerve in his left arm, rendering his arm and hand insensitive. As the sensation gradually returned over a period of months and then years, they learned that different somatosensations return at different times, suggesting the protopathic and epicritic pathways, today a fundmental of neurology. After three months he was able to sense pain, but it took longer before he was able to sense soft touch, heat, and cold.
Today we don't think much about yellow fever, but in the late 1700s a single outbreak killed as many as 5,000 people in Philadelphia alone, when Stubbins Ffirth was a boy. Later in medical school, he chose for his thesis to prove that yellow fever was not contagious, and experimented on himself to prove it — using the latest medical knowledge that contagious diseases spread through the exchange of bodily fluids. He acquired the blood, sweat, urine, and vomit of yellow fever patients. He drank them all, smeared them on his skin, put them in his eyes, cut his skin and rubbed the vomit into the incisions, even directly injected it into his veins — and he also applied these same experiments to dogs and cats. But try as he might, Ffirth could not get sick. He even constructed a "vomit sauna" in which he boiled vomit and spent hours breathing its fumes into his lungs. We know now the only reason he was unsuccessful is that he used the fluids from late-stage patients who were no longer contagious.
A hundred years later, we were still fighting the battle against yellow fever, this time in Cuba. Dr. Jesse Lazear was on Dr. Walter Reed's Yellow Fever Commission studying the transmission of disease by mosquitoes, as it had recently been discovered that that's how malaria was spread. At one point his theory was that infected mosquitoes had to "ripen", as he called it, for twelve days before they could transmit yellow fever. So he allowed himself to be bitten to test this. It's not known whether it was this mosquito or a wild one that may have also bitten him, but he contracted the disease very quickly and severely, and died six days later.
By way of conclusion, as a final word on the courage shown by all of these scientists and the many others like them who have put themselves on the line for the benefit of all, I will include this snippet from a letter Walter Reed wrote home to his wife:
[Jesse] was a splendid, brave fellow & I lament his loss more than words can tell; but his death was not in vain. His name will live in the history of those who have benefited humanity. The dangerous part of the work is now over & there is no need for you, my sweetheart, to continue to worry about me.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "I Still Can't Believe They Did That: More Human Guinea Pigs." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
17 Oct 2017. Web.
18 Nov 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4593>
References & Further Reading
Barnes, J. "Cause and Effect in Irukandji Stingings." Medical Journal of Australia. 1 Jan. 1964, Volume 1: 897-904.
Editors. "Elsie Widdowson." The Economist. Economist Newspaper Limited, 29 Jun. 2000. Web. 11 Oct. 2017. <http://www.economist.com/node/349071>
Editors. "Maurizio Montalbini." Obituaries. The Telegraph, 21 Sep. 2009. Web. 11 Oct. 2017. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/science-obituaries/6216073/Maurizio-Montalbini.html>
Editors. "Stubbins H. Ffirth." Journal of the American Medical Association. 27 Jul. 1964, Volume 189: 319-320.
Editors. "US Army Yellow Fever Commission." Claude Moore Health Sciences Laboratory. University of Virginia, 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2017. <http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/yellowfever/>
Haridas, R. "Horace Wells’ Demonstration of Nitrous Oxide in Boston." Journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. 1 Nov. 2013, Volume 119: 1014-1022.
Lenfest, S., Vaduca-Nemes, A., Okun, M. "Dr. Henry Head and lessons learned from his self-experiment on radial nerve transection." Journal of Neurosurgery. 1 Feb. 2011, Volume 114, Number 2: 529-533.
Marshall, B., Adams, P. "Heliobacter pylori: A Nobel pursuit?" Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology. 1 Nov. 2008, Volume 22, Number 11: 895-896.
Svoboda, E. "The Worms Crawl In." Research. The New York Times, 1 Jul. 2008. Web. 11 Oct. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/01/health/research/01prof.html>
Unger, D. "Does knuckle cracking lead to arthritis of the fingers?" Arthritis & Rheumatology. 1 May 1998, Volume 41, Issue 5: 949-950.
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