By Lia Hale
1st April, 2022
The rigidity of scientific regulations and ethical guidelines can hinder the ability to test wacky hypotheses in science. As famously stated by Napoleon Bonaparte, “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself”. Some scientists have taken this so literally as to practise self-experimentation, carrying out experiments on themselves to test their wildest hypotheses.
However, self-experimentation does not always end so well. Over the past 2 centuries, 8 recorded instances of self-experimentation have resulted in the death of the researcher. But there have also been 8 instances where self-experimentation has led to Nobel Prize-winning discoveries and contributed to a wide range of scientific disciplines, particularly medicine and physics.
Victor Hess was an Austrian American physicist interested in the ionising radiation detected on Earth. The source of the radiation was unknown, but physicists speculated that it was coming from rocks. According to this theory, ionising radiation levels should decrease with altitude. This was tested by the physicist Theodor Wulf in 1909, who measured radiation levels at the top of the Eiffel Tower but recorded less significant results than expected.
This suggested that the radiation was originating from space, rather than from the Earth’s surface. Hess corrected the methodology and the margin of error before venturing into the atmosphere himself. He conducted 7 flights in a hydrogen balloon over the course of 1911. As Hess travelled up and surpassed 1000 metres in altitude, he detected an exponential increase in radiation levels.
Hess and his balloon reached a maximum height of 5300m – higher than 6 Burj Khalifa’s stacked on top of each other and no small feat for a twenty-eight-year-old physicist.
Hess was further able to rule out the sun as the sole source of ionising radiation, as a flight conducted during a partial solar eclipse did not demonstrate a significant decrease in radiation levels. The radiation was therefore reaching Earth from outer space and was named cosmic radiation. This discovery won Hess the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936.
Not for the faint-hearted
Werner Forssmann was a German physician who inserted a catheter into his own vein and reached the heart, developing the widely used medical technique of cardiac catheterisation. Whilst studying medicine at the University of Berlin in 1929, Forssmann studied catheterisation of animals such as horses. He saw the diagnostic potential in humans as a remarkably accurate alternative to X-ray and electrocardiograms for cardiac conditions.
Multiple colleagues tried to stop Forssmann from catheterising himself. His first attempt saw him reach 35cm into the vein before his assistant abandoned the effort. Forssmann then resorted to deceiving a scrub nurse to obtain the correct equipment, leading her to believe that he would carry out the procedure on her rather than himself.
Forssmann successfully inserted the catheter 65cm into his antecubital vein, the approximate distance to the heart. With the catheter intact, Forssmann used an X-ray machine to identify the tip of the catheter in his right atrium.
Over 10 years later, the scientists Dickinson Richards and André Cournand pioneered the widespread diagnostic use of cardiac catheterisation and the 3 men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1956.
A taste of his own medicine
The most recent instance of Nobel Prize winning self-experimentation helped to transform the severity and prognosis of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. In 1982, the Australian physician Barry Marshall discovered that stomach ulcers and cancers are caused by the gut bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Stomach ulcers were thought to result from stress and to convince the scientific community of anything different was no small feat.
Research in rodents was not an option as H. pylori specifically infects primates; neither could Marshall administer the bacteria to a human subject for ethical reasons. Determined, he cultured gut bacteria from a patient with indigestion and gastritis, the precursors to ulcers. This patient was cured with antibiotics, which reassured Marshall that he could treat himself if he fell seriously ill.
Marshall mixed the bacterial culture into a solution and drank it. He suffered an unpleasant combination of symptoms including vomiting, bad breath and exhaustion – 3 textbook symptoms of gastritis. Ten days later, a biopsy of Marshall’s stomach lit up like a Christmas tree with H. pylori, proving him right. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2005.
It takes a certain amount of bravery, passion (and stupidity!) to self-experiment and put your life on the life. But perhaps the magnitude of the discovery and the progress of science make travelling 5300m up in the atmosphere, sticking a catheter up your arm or swallowing deadly bacteria worth the risk.
Lia Hale is a contributing writer for I, Science. After graduating with a degree in Neuroscience from Cardiff University, she embarked on the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial. She hopes to communicate her passion for science to a wider audience in her future career.