When you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. This philosophy is okay when it comes to loading the dishwasher, but maybe not when you’re trying find the cause of venereal disease. But no one told that to John Hunter. Medical types in the 18th-century medical believed gonorrhea and syphilis were caused by the same pathogen. Hunter injected himself with gonorrhea to test the theory. He contract gonorrhea AND syphilis, probably from using the same needle to get the samples.
We’re talking about medical experimentation today, much of which took place back before we had a solid handle on germ theory and good hygiene, so be forewarned that things are gonna get icky and there will be some talk of body parts. We’re also going to be talking about the relaunch and special offer on our Patreon page (url), but I promise I’ll try not to turn it into a PBS pledge drive.
Today’s list is in time-honored tradition of the random order I copied the names into the Google Doc, but let’s start with one of the OG’s Isaac Newton. Newton had many areas of interest, not just fruit-based physics. Newton voluntarily stuck a needle in his eye in the name of science. The experiment was designed to test optics and color perception. He thought if he slid a long needle behind his eyeball, between the eye and the eye socket, and started poking, his vision would change. And it did! He noticed that he saw different perceptions of color and light as small, colorful dots that appeared when he applied a bit of pressure. It’s the same thing that happens if you press on your eyes. Newton also stared at the sun in a mirror, repeatedly, until the image of the sun stayed when he closed his eye. It stayed alright, for months. He had to spend three day in a dark room until it faded enough for him to go on with his daily life.
While at the Medical Pneumatic Institute of Bristol in the 1790’s, Humphry Davy studied gases. Studied by inhaling, if today’s theme was still in any way unclear. Davy would set up chemical reactions and inhale the resulting gas. One gas gave him a pleasant sensation and impulse to laugh at everything; he had discovered nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas. Though his initial attempts were meant to reproduce the pleasurable effects of opium and alcohol, Davy would ultimately recommend the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. Your dentist gives you a blend of 50% nitrous and 50% oxygen, but Davy was huffing 100% nitrous, which is probably why he enjoyed it enough to start hosting parties where friends would inhale it from silk bags.
When it came time to test his polio vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk decided the only suitable test subject was himself – and his family. In 1947, Salk was working on a vaccine for the crippling disease at the University of Pittsburgh. He needed a healthy volunteer to test it, and administered it to himself, his wife, and their three sons. It worked, and was soon implemented in a nationwide test that showed dramatic results: in two years, cases of polio decreased from 28,985 to 5,894. Salk didn’t patent the vaccination and insisted that it remain free and available to everyone. As a result, he’s often remembered as one of history’s great humanitarians.
Dr Olivier Ameisen was a brilliant cardiologist with his own practice in the second half of the twentieth century, when he developed a life-hindering addiction to alcohol. Fearing for his life, he immersed himself in AA, rehab and therapy, but nothing worked. So he did the only thing he felt could; he took his treatment into his own hands. Searching for a cure for his deadly disease, he happened upon baclofen, a muscle relaxant that had been used safely for years, but had shown promising results in studies with laboratory animals addicted to a wide variety of substances. Dr Ameisen prescribed himself the drug and experimented with increasingly higher doses until he finally reached a level high enough to leave him free of any craving for alcohol. He published his results in 2004, which a team of Italian scientists tested with promising results.
Werner Forssmann was a German urologist who, during his surgical training in 1921, pioneered the technique of cardiac catheterisation – the inserting of a catheter into the heart to measure the pressure inside and decide whether a patient needs surgery. Building on the work of scientists who had successfully catheterised a horse in 1861, Forssmann was inspired to try to replicate the work in humans, but couldn’t get permission for human trials of such a dangerous-sounding experiment. Undeterred, he asked an operating room nurse to procure him the necessary equipment. She agreed, but only on the noble condition that he experiment on her, rather than trying to perform the operation on himself. No sooner was the nurse on the table than Forssmann anaesthetised his own arm and made a cut, inserting the catheter 12in/30cm into his vein. He then casually climbed two flights of stairs to the x-ray suite before threading it all the way into his heart and getting an xray to check the placement. He was forced to resign from that hospital, then hired back, then fired again.
In the early 30’s, Doctors Herbert Woollard and Edward Carmichael noticed that when an internal organ was damaged, patients sometimes felt pain in relatively unconnected parts of their body. They decided to deliberately damage one of their own internal organs, and study the effects. But what internal organs did they have that were both noncritical and easily damaged? Maybe one, or a pair of ones, that’s effectively on the outside of the body. Yep, they *chose to experiment with their gentlemen’s bits, to study pain. In their notes, Woollard and Carmichael recorded that “the testis was drawn forward” and placed between a pair of fingers and a pan that could hold weights, though they recorded neither whose testis nor whose fingers were used. Weights were added to the pan, and the resulting sensations were recorded. The pair performed the experiment multiple times, sometimes injecting various sections of the testicles with local anesthetic to numb the pain. After sufficient experimentation, they concluded that testicular pain often came with generalized torso pain. If only one testicle was harmed, only one side of the torso would feel its effects. Was their bravery worth it? Doctors still note the “referred pain” that comes along with testicular trauma, so they helped advance medical knowledge, in their own way. Has anyone studied why a kick to the coin purse can make a man dry-heave? That’s the sort of question that would make a great bonus min-episode for members of our Patreon.
Since the inception of patreon.com/yourbrianonfact late last year, members at the $5 a month level or higher get a bonus mini-episode. For everyone who signs up or upgrades between today and our one-year anniversary on February 12 will get *two bonus mini episodes every month. That’s like getting 25% more YBOF than non-members. Previous mini-sodes have included surprisingly childish weapons of WWII. like itching powder in condoms, and the Welsh town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch and yes, that’s all one word. One word with 58 letters, including 4 L’s in a row. The only way to get two monthly bonus mini-episodes is to join our Patreon. That’s just the first of three parts of our Patreon overhaul and special offer.
Chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, in 1938 while studying the grain fungus ergot, but had no idea of its hallucinogenic powers until he accidentally ingested a small amount in 1943. He went home and “sank into a not-unpleasant condition.” Realizing his discovery, he did what any good scientist would do and began experimenting on himself. “Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes,” he wrote of the experience. “Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color.”
His first purposeful acid trip was on April 19, 1943, when he famously rode his bicycle home while under the influence of the drug. He deliberately took a dose that he believed to be light, but which led to intense effects while riding home on his bicycle – an episode that has become notorious in recreational pharmaceutical circles, celebrated as Bicycle Day. While the chemical may have uses in psychiatry, its impact to date has arguably been more cultural than medical. Hofmann himself continued to take LSD, and advocate its careful use, for the rest of his life. Hofmann wasn’t alone in testing out psychedelic drugs on himself: US chemist Alexander Shulgin ingested many chemicals, including MDMA (ecstasy), leading to its use in psychotherapy, and Harvard psychologist Timothy “Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out” Leary experimented with LSD on himself, to test, among other things, whether it could be used to treat alcoholism. He lost his professional position well before he could find out.
What would it take for you to willingly put parasitic hookworms against your skin, so that they can burrow through your skin, live in your intestines, and feed off your blood? Immunologist and biologist David Pritchard did just that in 2004. Hookworms seem able to modify the body’s immune response in ways that may be useful in treating immune system disorders, such as asthma and Crohn’s disease. Such disorders are comparatively rare in places where hookworm infestation is common. But was that correlation or causation? Pritchard had a hypothesis that hookworm infections reduce allergy and asthma symptoms, and needed to test on human subjects. In order to appease his ethics committee, he agreed to be the guinea pig. Other members of Pritchard’s lab also infected themselves with the hookworms, which can survive for up to a decade but are easy to kill off with drugs. “They itch quite a bit when they go through the skin,” said Pritchard, but become really troublesome only when they reached his stomach, causing pain and diarrhea. Fifty turned out to be too many: ten was a safer number. The experiment later allowed for wider testing on humans, who reported miraculous relief of allergy symptoms. Trials are continuing to evaluate the treatment, including a test to see if the hookworms can help multiple sclerosis sufferers.
In 1898, German surgeon August Bier figured out that a dose of cocaine injected into the spinal fluid could serve as an effective anesthesia. In order to prove it this, he had his assistant, Augustus Hildebrandt, attempt to inject him, but Hildebrandt messed up, and Bier ended up leaking spinal fluid out of a hole is his neck. Rather than abandon the experiment, the two men switched places and Bier injected Hildebrandt with the cocaine. The injection went correctly this time. Bier proceeded to hit, stab, hammer, and even burn his assistant. He also pulled Hildebrandt’s pubic hair and squashed his testicles. Was that in the spirit of thoroughness? I sure as shinola hope so. The pair subsequently went out for a boozy dinner, perhaps in an effort to forget that day’s traumatic events. Once the cocaine had worn off, both suffered terribly in subsequent days but, while Bier took it easy as he recovered, Hildebrandt had to cover for his boss at work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he subsequently fell out with Bier, becoming one of his fiercest critics and denying his discovery of spinal anaesthesia, even as it rapidly caught on.
In June 1903, physicist Pierre Curie, husband of two-Nobel-prize winner Marie, rolled up his sleeve and revealed a burn-like wound on his arm to a packed audience at the UK’s Royal Institution. The wound had been caused by a sample of radium salts, which he had taped to the skin of his arm for just 10 hours, more than 50 days earlier. During the course of his demonstration, Curie dropped some radium on the desk. The resulting contamination was still detectable, and in need of cleaning up, half a century later. Curie and his wife, Marie, hoped that radium’s burning effect might prove useful in the treatment of cancer. Ironically, the radiation from that the sample, and various other chemicals to which the Curies routinely exposed themselves in the course of their work, was actually having a catastrophic effect on their health. Both Pierre and Marie were constantly ill, tired and in pain, but their experiments did pave the way for the use of radium in medicine.
Not everyone on today’s list got a shiny medal and prize money for their work. Some of them merely got maimed or died. Sir David Brewster was a Scottish inventor, scientist, and writer. His field of interest was optics and light polarization – a field requiring excellent vision. Unfortunately for Sir David, he performed a chemical experiment in 1831 which nearly blinded him. While his vision did return, he was plagued with eye troubles until his death. His legacy in vision takes the form of his invention, the kaleidoscope, a toy that has brought joy to millions of children over the years. Also in the sacrificing sight for science club, Robert Bunsen is probably best known for having given his name to the bunsen burner which he helped to popularize, and one of the least-appreciated Muppets. He started out his scientific career in organic chemistry but nearly died twice of arsenic poisoning. Shortly after his near-death experiences, he lost the sight in his right eye after an explosion of cacodyl cyanide. These being excellent reasons to change fields, he moved in to inorganic chemistry and went on to develop the field of spectroscopy, which measures and examines light and radiation.
Elizabeth Fleischman Ascheim married her doctor, Dr Woolf, shortly after her mother died. Because of his medical position, Woolf was very interested in the new discovery of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen – x-rays. His new wife became equally interested and she gave up her job as a bookkeeper to undertake studies in electrical science. Eventually she bought an x-ray machine which she moved in to her husbands office – this was the first x-ray lab in San Francisco. She and her husband spent some years experimenting with the machine – using themselves as subjects. Unfortunately they did not realize the consequences of their lack of protection and Elizabeth died of an extremely widespread and violent cancer.
In 1885, Daniel Carrion, a young Peruvian medical student, was trying to establish the early symptoms of ‘verruga disease’, an infectious disease rare outside South America but endemic in parts of Peru. As part of this investigation, he was inoculated with fluid from a verruga lesion from a patient with the chronic form of the disease. He recorded the symptoms as they developed, including fever, malaise, arthralgia, vomiting and anaemia, and it became apparent that he had developed the acute phase of the illness, known as Oroya fever. He died a few weeks later on 5 October. Carrion is considered a martyr of Peruvian medicine and 5 October has been designated Peruvian Medicine Day in his honour.
Alexander Bogdanov was a Russian physician, philosopher, economist, science fiction writer, and revolutionary. In 1924, he began experiments with blood transfusion – possibly in a search for eternal youth, because that’s what most early transfusions were for. After 11 transfusions, performed himself on himself, he declared that his balding had stopped and his eyesight had improved. Unfortunately for Bogdanov, he was not one to test the health of the blood he was using, leading to a transfusion of blood infected with malaria and tuberculosis, shortly after which he died.
They didn’t know it at the time how important different blood types are. Only slightly more important than the types of memberships at patreon.com/ybof. Segues, I’ve still got them. All members, regardless of tier, are memorialized on an episode, get to vote on one episode topic a month, and receive a fabulous YBOF sticker, suitable for learned laptops and brilliant bumpers. As you go up in tier, you can get one or two bonus mini-sodes, early access to the weekly episodes, and  to submit a fact of your own or a question for me to answer on the show each month, provided it’s not vulgar or classified.
But wait, there’s more! Get a custom YBOF acrylic brain keychain. What makes it so custom? My long-suffering husband is making them with his recently-acquired laser cutter certification. Your name, or a name of your choosing, will be etched on the back. We’re only making the exact number of keychains as people who sign up at patreon.com/ybof between now and 2/12. There’s no other way to get one. All the best-dressed keys will be wearing one this season.
A special place in science heaven must be reserved for Stubbins Ffirth, who, as a medical student, conducted a series of potentially life-saving but definitely revolting experiments in the early 19th century to prove that yellow fever was not contagious. Yellow fever is a viral disease that causes fever, chills, loss of appetite, nausea, muscle pains particularly in the back, and headaches and can be fatal. At the time, doctors believe yellow fever passed from person to person directly, like the flu, but Ffirth disagreed. He started off by pouring “fresh black vomit” from a yellow fever patient into cuts in his arm. He didn’t get yellow fever. Emboldened by this, Ffirth collected a patient’s vomit, and put it in his eyes. He smeared himself with all manner of assorted bodily fluids from yellow-fever sufferers, including blood, spit, sweat and urine. He even sat in a “vomit sauna” full of heated vapors of regurgitation, which caused him “great pain in [his] head”, but left him in good health. Finally, he took to actually ingesting the vomit – first in pill form, then straight from a patient’s mouth. In his 1804 book “A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an Attempt to Prove Its Non-Contagious Nature, he declared Yellow Fever *not contagious. Turns out, Yellow Fever was contagious, but only through blood transmission via mosquito bite. That was proven by another self-experimenter, US army surgeon Jesse Lazear, who allowed himself to be bitten by yellow fever-infected mosquitoes in the early 1900s. Ironically, Lazear would die of mosquito-borne disease, but not one of the mosquitos he bred for the experiment,but rather a wild one who happened by.
Just as Ffirth swam against the tide of yellow fever contagion, doctor Barry Marshall was sure the medical establishment was wrong about the cause of stomach ulcers. The accepted wisdom was that they were caused by lifestyle factors, primarily stress, but Marshall and pathologist Robin Warren were sure a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, was to blame. To prove their hypothesis, they needed to examine how the bacteria affected a healthy human volunteer, but as Marshall explained to New Scientist in a 2006 interview, “I was the only person informed enough to consent”. Marshall didn’t tell the hospital’s ethics committee what he had in mind, for fear of being turned down, or even his own wife, until after he had swallowed the bacteria. He was fine for three days, but then began vomiting; his wife complained that he had “putrid breath”. A biopsy taken 10 days later confirmed the bacteria had infected his stomach and that he had gastritis, which can eventually lead to ulcers. It still took another eight years for Marshall and Warren’s theory to be widely accepted, but their work eventually earned them the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
One self-experimenter whose work had long-term personal consequences was the polymath JBS Haldane. Haldane wanted to build on work done by his father, John Scott Haldane, on the physiology of Navy divers in the early 20th century. But whereas Haldane senior restricted himself to observation and measurement, his son took a more direct approach, repeatedly putting himself in a decompression chamber to investigate the physiological effects of various levels of gases. Haldane was concerned for the welfare of sailors in disabled submarines, and his work led to a greatly improved understanding of nitrogen narcosis, as well as the safe use of various gases in breathing equipment. But he paid a high price. Oxygen poisoning resulted in numerous seizures, one of which was so violent that it left him with several crushed vertebrae. He also suffered from burst eardrums, but he found a silver lining in that. “The drum generally heals up,” he said, adding, “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.”
On the topic of water safety, a certain species of jellyfish was suspected, at least by one doctor, of causing a strange illness that appeared in Australia in the mid-20th century. It was characterized by severe muscles aches, nausea and pain so intense that strong opioids are usually required, as well as a truly bizarre symptom. Patients would experience levels of anxiety so severe that some of them reportedly asked their doctors to kill them. The cause was unknown, but it seemed to come from the sea, as most patients had been swimming prior to the appearance of symptoms. Jack Barnes, a Queensland physician, eventually narrowed down the suspects to a species of tiny, nearly transparent box jellyfish. To see if he was right, the intrepid doctor jabbed himself with the tentacle of a Carukia barnesi and settled in to wait—but he wasn’t alone. Probably losing his shot at ‘father of the year,’ he also stung his nine-year-old son, as well as a young lifeguard. Nowhere in any of my research could I find how he knew the lifeguard or what ales pitch the doctor made to talk him into it. Not too long after being stung, all three began to experience excruciating pain, and were eventually taken to the hospital for treatment. Barnes’ work would uncover the cause of the mysterious symptoms, now called “Irukandji syndrome.” All three went on to recover; no word on how this affected the father-son dynamic.
A lot of people start Patreons for their various arts, expecting to make a living off of it. That’s not what I’m hoping for. My goal is simply *not losing money as I improve and expand in podcasting. This brings us to the unique third part of the patreon.com/ybof relaunch. If membership tops $75 before our special offer period ends 2/12, half of the amount over $75 will go to the artists who provide free or low-cost resources for podcasters and other creators, like Kevin MacLeod, who composed 90% of the music I’ve ever used, including the opening and ending theme, which he puts out into the world for anyone to use for free. So supporting one creator actually could support several. If membership goes above $100, *all of that third strata will go to charity. A different apolitical secular charity will be chose each month from patron suggestions. So support one creator, support many creators, support various charities, get bonus content and get exclusive swag for pennies a day. Remember, all the best stuff happens when you sign up between today and our anniversary on 2/12.
If you’ve been feeling smart because these silly olden times people experimented on themselves, you can kiss your sug sense of superiority goodbye. Scientists still sometimes deliberately infect themselves with pathogens they’re studying. Anatoli Brouchkov is a Russian research scientist, specializing in permafrost, a geocryologist, who thought it would be a keen idea to inject himself with bacteria that’s estimated to be 3.5 million years old. Dr. Brouchkov first discovered this ancient bacteria, Bacillus F, in 2009, frozen deep in the permafrost on a mountain in Siberia’s Yakutsk region, even deeper in the permafrost than wooly mammoth remains. Dr. Brouchkov estimated it was 3.5 million years old, but despite its advanced age, it was still alive. Such ancient viruses are incredibly complex, with hundreds upon hundreds of protein-encoding genes; influenza A has eight. In short, there’s a lot we don’t know about them.
According to Brouchkov, Bacillus F has a mechanism that has enabled it to survive for so long beneath the ice, and that the same mechanism could be used to extend life, read: fountain of youth. In tests, Brouchkov says the bacteria allowed female mice to reproduce at ages far older than typical mice. Fruit flies, he told the Siberian Times, also experienced a “positive impact” from exposure to the bacteria. The problem is, he still doesn’t know what, exactly, that mechanism is. But that didn’t stop Brouchkov for start human trials, or trial. When interviewed two years later, he claimed to have seen no ill effects from the bacterium, that he hasn’t had a cold or flu since and that he felt more energetic. Needless to say, his work is considered fringe. If he doesn’t turn into a giant ground sloth or at least a were-yeti, I’m going to feel very cheated.
If you’ve ever been stung by a bee, you’ve probably called it “painful.” If you’ve ever been bitten by a Bullet Ant, you might call it a “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.” Thankfully, you don’t need to be bitten by a bullet ant, because biologist Justin Schmidt already has. In fact, he has been bitten and stung close to a thousand times by a wide variety of painful creatures, all while making careful notes along the way. He created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a way of measuring and describing the relative pain insects inflict on humans and other animals, which is both elucidating and entertaining, in a schadenfreude kind of way. Schmidt ranks each insect sting on a scale of one to four, with four being the most painful. He also describes each sting with evocative, even poetic, language. The Sweat Bee, for example, which ranks as a one on the pain scale, feels “Light and ephemeral. Almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” It almost sounds like a pretentious person describing wine. Garnering a score of 2, a yellowjacket’s sting was described as being “hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” At 3 on the scale, the sting of the Maricopa harvester ant is described as “After eight unrelenting hours of drilling into that ingrown toenail, you find the drill wedged into the toe.” The description of the warrior wasp sting, which is category 4, shows SChmidt’s realization of the lunacy of his bodily sacrifice, “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?”, saying the pain lasts up to two hours. Really puts that splinter you had last week into perspective. My personal favorite, though, is the tarantula hawk, widely regarded as the most painful sting yet discovered by man, “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath. A bolt out of the heavens. Lie down and scream.”
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. The annals of medical misadventure aren’t limited to experimentation, though. There are numerous accounts of docrors having to perform surgery on themselves, such as Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who found a lump in her breast while stationed in an Antarctic research station in 1999. Planes can only land at the station four months out of the year, so she was isolated from any potential cancer treatment. Nielsen trained a carpenter and welder to assist her and cut out the lump to perform a biopsy on it. She then began a course of self-administered chemotherapy until the weather calmed enough to fly in another doctor. Take that, Humphrey Davy, with your nitrous oxide parties. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.