September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Raising a glass to self-experimenting scientists...
You won’t be needing these…

The mad-scientist stereotype is one of Hollywood’s guilty pleasures. There is the familiar storyline of an experiment gone wrong, giving the scientist super-human abilities, a disfigurement and those pesky psychopathic tendencies.

In reality stringent safety guidelines exist in all fields of science, from handling bio-hazardous gloop to fiddling with face-melting chemicals. In medical research, newly developed drugs usually undergo a program of cellular studies, animal testing and clinical trials with human volunteers before they finally go to production. These tests are rigorous and it can often take over six years of research before a drug even reaches clinical trials.

Yet even real-life science has had its share of mavericks who chose to ignore conventions and skip all the red tape. In the quest to test their theories, some have even gone so far as to sidestep animal testing altogether and go straight for the jugular—their own, in fact—by self-experimenting.

In 1984 Barry Marshall was convinced that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori was to blame for stomach ulcers, despite the received wisdom of the time citing lifestyle factors (such as stress) as the probable cause. Frustrated by failed attempts to acquire a suitable animal model to test his theory, he opted to drink an H. pylori-filled petri dish and see what happened. That might sound unlikely to make it past a hospital’s ethics committee, but then Marshall did not tell his ethics committee. Or his wife. Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it) Marshall was correct, and he soon became extremely nauseous and developed severe gastritis—the early stages of an ulcer. He went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work.

Another renowned self-experimenter who ended up with a Nobel Prize was the German physician Werner Forssmann. He was a controversial figure in the field of cardiac catheterization and actually pioneered the technique by inserting a catheter into his own arm and feeding it through his vein until it reached the right atrium of his heart. He then walked down a flight of stairs to take an X-ray of his heart in order to prove the success of his self-catheterization.

Not that bad so far? Travel further back in medicine’s history and it gets even gorier.

August Bier is often credited as the father of spinal anaesthesia and performed the first human treatment. But it was through his testing of its effectiveness that Bier really demonstrated his dedication to the science. In experiments in which both he and his assistant underwent the procedure—involving the injection of cocaine into the cerebrospinal fluid—the assessments for loss-of-feeling included stabbing, burning, pubic hair plucking and testicle squashing. Unsurprisingly, once the anaesthesia wore off, the two would-be guinea pigs suffered the effects of their experiment. In fact the poor assistant later quit Bier’s service and became one of his fiercest critics.

However, the most impressive display of commitment to self-experimenting has to go to Stubbins Ffirth. In the early 19th century he undertook increasingly disgusting vomit-centric experiments in order to prove his theory that yellow fever was not contagious. He started with pouring ‘fresh black vomit’ from a yellow fever patient into cuts on his own arms. Not yet satisfied, he took to smearing blood, urine, spit and sweat from those afflicted onto his body, as well as dribbling their vomit into his eyes. He even went so far as sitting in a self-made ‘vomit sauna’, heating the vomit so that he breathed in the regurgitation vapours. Finally he actually ingested the vomit, first in pill form and then directly from the sufferer’s mouth. Despite all this he failed to contract the disease, apparently proving his theory right.

Obviously self-experimentation is an extreme and dangerous leap of faith. However, without these scientific mavericks willing to put their own bodies on the line for their research, we may have had a far longer wait for some discoveries. This argument is particularly pertinent when considering medical research—with Barry Marshall himself citing his responsibility to the millions of ulcer sufferers as a driving force for his self-experimentation.

Nevertheless self-experimenting is discouraged. Not only because of its inherent risks, but because it does not generally prove a theory. Regardless of the outcome, your experiment will still only have a sample size of one, and therefore have no statistical significance. And there is the worrying lack of respect for contemporary scientific conventions and the authorities put in place to enforce them. If all scientific experiments stopped adhering to the regulations and ethics of modern science, we might not have to wait too long before our very own super-villain scientist was created. That, and a lot of people would probably die.

IMAGE: irongategallery, flickr