It’s not science if you don’t test your hypotheses, but sometimes there’s no test subject in the lab. That didn’t stop these valiant men and women, who went balls-out in the name of scientific progress and used their own bodies as guinea pigs. Read along as we explore the ten weirdest experiments scientists performed on themselves.
When there’s a disease epidemic ravaging the land, doctors sometimes step outside the boundaries of good science to find a cure. Stubbins Ffirth was a doctor in training in Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever outbreak of the early 1790s. The disease claimed around 10 percent of the city’s population, so a desire to find a cure was paramount. Common wisdom was that bodily fluids spread the infection, but Ffirth felt differently. To prove it, he underwent a series of grotesque experiments where he cut his arms and poured infected vomit on the cuts, dripped vomit into his eyeballs and even drank it. Unfortunately, the samples he took were from patients who were no longer contagious, so all of this disgustingness was for naught.
John Paul Stapp
As aviation technology improved by leaps and bounds in the post-WWII era, the human body began to be pushed to the limits. When the U.S. Air Force needed to learn if pilots could survive being ejected from a plane at supersonic speeds, they turned to flight surgeon John Paul Stapp, who decided that he would be the prime test subject. Stapp built a rocket sled that accelerated to speeds of up to 632 miles per hour before stopping in a pool of water and strapped himself into it for test runs 29 times, causing all manner of harm to his body. The most gruesome effects were to his eyes — rapid deceleration causes blood to pool in them, bursting capillaries and potentially tearing the retina.
Sometimes experiments don’t yield results, but they’re still necessary. When he was trying to discover the cause of the autonomic reflex that makes you gasp for air when you are trying to hold your breath, researcher Moran Campbell used himself as a quite disturbing guinea pig. He was given a sufficient dose of intravenous curare to paralyze every part of his body but his forearm, then hooked up to a respirator. The machine was turned off and Campbell spent the next four minutes silently asphyxiating, unable to move, until an attendant judged his blood carbon dioxide to be too high and turned the machine back on. What did he learn? Not much, but it was a crazy, badass experiment.
While working in Papua New Guinea, immunologist and biologist David Pritchard noticed something interesting. The natives of that island country were plagued with hookworm, a parasite in the intestinal tract, but one thing that didn’t bother them was autoimmune disorders like hay fever. So, to test the theory that the worms emitted a substance that damped immune response, he put a staggering 50 worms into his own system, suffering a host of gastrointestinal symptoms of the grossest kind but proving his theory: the worms do help people with existing autoimmune disorders find some relief.
Here’s a self-experimenting scientist who was a serious badass. Irukandji syndrome was a little-understood condition that only happened in northern Australia during the summer wet season. Afflicted victims became ill very quickly with nausea, intense muscle pain, vomiting and, in some cases, death. Jack Barnes, a former Army commando turned doctor, was so convinced that the cause of the mysterious disease was being stung by a small box jellyfish native to the area that he went underwater, captured one of the thumbnail-sized, nearly invisible beasts, and had it sting himself, his son and a local lifeguard. All three started having symptoms immediately and were rushed to the hospital, proving Barnes’ crazy theory.
Herbert Woolard and Edward Carmichael
“Referred pain” is one of the great mysteries of the human nervous system. It describes the tendency to, when injured, feel sensations in other uninjured parts of the body. Men know it best as the unimaginable stomach pain you get from being kicked in the nuts. Doctors Herbert Woolard and Edward Carmichael wanted to study this phenomenon, and they did it in the weirdest way possible. One of them (they never revealed which) lay down on a table while the other stacked increasingly heavy weights on one of his testicles and observed the reactions in his body. It sounds like a frat initiation gone wrong, but it did help them prove the existence of referred pain.
Dr. Giles Brindley
Sometimes, after all the science is done, you just need to demonstrate results. When Dr. Giles Brindley was invited to speak at the 1983 meeting of the American Urological Society on work he’d been doing relating to erectile dysfunction and muscle relaxants, he took a very hands-on approach to presenting his findings. During a speech in front of hundreds of urologists, Brindley first displayed multiple slides of penises affected, before telling the shocked crowd that he’d actually injected his own penis with a vasodilator before the speech and dropped his pants so that they could examine the results. Needless to say, that presentation went down in urological history.
One April day in 1943, chemist Albert Hofmann dissolved 0.25 milligrams of a chemical he’d been working with into a beaker of water and drank it. That experiment would change history — and his own brain — forever. The chemical was lysergic acid diethylamide-25, better known as LSD. Hoffman had been researching it as a pain reliever, but after that first dose he came to realize that it was an enormously powerful hallucinogen. That didn’t stop him from dosing himself dozens more times in the years to come as he worked to understand the substance he’d created.
Researching venereal diseases is a pretty thankless task, but somebody’s got to do it. Eighteenth century physician John Hunter had a theory that gonorrhea and syphilis were two sides of the same coin, caused by a single pathogen. To test this theory, he extracted pus from a patient with gonorrhea and injected it into himself to catch the disease. Amazingly, he did indeed get both syphilis and gonorrhea — but that was just because the needle had been accidentally contaminated with syphilis. It wasn’t until half a century later that his theory was proven wrong, probably because nobody wanted to repeat the experiment.
Next: Perfectly Timed Photos, Vol. 7
The inside of the human body used to be quite a mystery. There’s a lot going on in there, and a lot of moving parts. Physician Werner Forssmann was a surgical trainee in 1929 with a special interest in the human heart. He was so interested, in fact, that he attempted to put a catheter into the organ through a patient’s elbow — and the patient was himself. Forssmann was supposed to do the experiment on a female nurse, but he instead drugged her and became his own guinea pig, at one point standing in front of an X-ray machine with a mirror to watch the tube wending its way through his body. He was roundly scorned for his operation and went on to a career in urology before being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956 for his groundbreaking experiment.