The experiments were epic, the results often disastrous or fatal. They were invasive or dangerous human experiments, and completely unethical… had they not been tests performed on the researchers, by the researchers themselves. In this account of academic insight coupled with dubious judgment, we look at the most shocking and often ill-fated cases of researcher self-experimentation.
10. Joseph Barcroft
Many scientists have tested things on themselves that just might be harmful to determine results. But the Northern Irish physiologist Joseph Barcroft took things a little further by purposely testing known poison gas on himself and studying the effects. Born in 1872, Barcroft lived until 1947, though he came close to dying much sooner. Barcroft opposed violence as a Quaker, but carried out terrible human experimentation on himself when World War I came about. In an enclosed chamber at the Porton Down chemical warfare laboratory in 1915, he allowed himself to be exposed to deadly hydrogen cyanide as it was released, while sharing the chamber with a dog.
After about a minute, the dog passed out, seemingly dead (though it later came to). Seeing this effect, Barcroft exited the chamber alive. Barcroft experienced dizziness upon any quick turning of his head, which lasted around one year. His concern was to determine how dangerous the poison gas being used in the war might be. Barcroft’s other extreme experiments after World War I included spending time in a chamber that mimicked high altitudes, then riding a stationary bicycle. This turned his blood blue, which shockingly is not what killed him. Instead, he died from a heart attack while trying to catch a bus.
9. Jesse William Lazear
American doctor Jesse William Lazear, also a member of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission, was involved in pioneering work organized by the Yellow Fever Board, but his work went too far. Lazear’s work took him to Cuba in 1900, where he studied Yellow Fever and refined his theories on transmission methods and sources of Yellow Fever infection. However, he died at age 34 thanks to a decision to allow a mosquito infected with yellow fever to bite into his flesh and transmit the infection. This was to allow a self study of the disease. The self-destructive act was concealed at the time by being passed off as a mistake, only to be brought to light from a recovered notebook in 1947 that confirmed the deadly experiment’s deliberate nature.
At a hospital in Havana, Lazear painstakingly hatched mosquito eggs, then got them to drink blood from Yellow Fever patients. Two other study members who were intentionally exposed to Yellow Fever did survive, but Lazear’s self experiment was ultimately fatal. The brave, if not foolhardy scientist passed away from Yellow Fever in September 1900. The work of Lazear is notable for being the first discovery of a human virus, rather than a bacterial infectious agent, in medical history.
8. Nicholas Senn
Swiss born Nicholas Senn was a self-experimenter whose research actions extended to the nearly insane. Toward the end of the 1880s, this researcher self-tested gastrointestinal inflation as a means of diagnosing holes (perforation) in the intestinal tract by putting a rubber balloon onto a tube, then connecting the tube to his rear and pumping no less than four gallons of hydrogen into his intestinal tract. Previous experiments (of questionable ethical standing) on dogs caused intestinal ruptures, making trying it on himself yet crazier. He survived and went on to become the founder and, for two years, president of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States.
But that was not the only crazy experiment Dr. Senn took upon himself. He actually placed cancerous tissue removed from a patient of his with cancer of the lip in an incision in his arm. This was to prove Senn’s idea that cancer could not be “caught” like an infectious agent. Soon after having the small piece of cancerous lymph node placed in his forearm, a new nodule appeared. But Senn’s arm was back to normal in a matter of weeks, showing that cancer is not transmitted like tuberculosis, for example. This finding was reported in Dr. Senn’s article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
7. Max von Pettenkofer
German mad scientist and researcher extraordinaire Max von Pettenkofer actually swallowed cholera bacteria. He didn’t mind taking great risks, saying “Even if I had deceived myself and the experiment endangered my life, I would have looked Death quietly in the eye for mine would have been no foolish or cowardly suicide; I would have died in the service of science like a soldier on the field of honor.” Pettenkofer was a firm believer in the concept of multiple factors causing infection, including low air quality in contrast to contagionist views, such as those held by his rival, Robert Koch.
On October 7, 1892, von Pettenkofer requested and swallowed a vial containing water contaminated with cholera bacteria to show that multiple health factors, rather than simple exposure, was responsible for infectious illness in humans. In an attempt to prove Koch’s contagiousness views wrong, von Pettenkofer drank the cholera with witnesses present, including Koch himself. While Pettenkofer’s ideas have been shown to be wrong by modern medical science, the fact that he did not get deathly ill from cholera lent him temporary credence. While the cholera experiment did not kill him, he eventually died by suicide with a gun.
6. Nathaniel Kleitman
Nathaniel Kleitman could be dubbed “the modern caveman” for his experiment on himself. The American scientist was Russian, born into a Jewish family in 1895, and went on to become the leader of his research field both in the USA and worldwide. Kleitman was the world’s first exclusively focused sleep scholar. For him, sleeping on the job was part of the journey to becoming known as the father of sleep science. In addition to setting up the first sleep lab in the world and publishing Sleep and Wakefulness, Kleitman and his colleagues undertook an experiment where they lived in a 54 degree (Fahrenheit) subterranean hollow in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky from June 4-6, 1938.
They tested the effects of living, waking, and sleeping in an environment in which night and day ceased to exist (as we know them), removed from the dictates of the sun in the 26 by 65 foot rocky hollow 140 feet underground. The 28-hour cycle in the cave involved 10 hours of sleep, 10 hours of rest, and 10 hours of work to try and break the body’s 24-hour rhythm. The work showed, however, that humans do have a 24-hour rhythm independent of external stimuli, with the older Kleitman being unable to adjust to the new cycle, while his 20-year-old assistant experienced some adaptation. This type of research clearly did no harm, as Kleitman lived to 104.
5. Frederick Hoelzel
Pica is a well known but strange disorder that involves human consumption of inedible and often dangerous foreign objects. Mad scientist Frederick Hoelzel, on the other hand, did not have Pica. He just a pressing need to experiment with unusual ingestions at his own risk. Starting off with concerns about weight, Hoelzel attempted to avoid hunger while losing weight. This caused Hoelzel to eat everything from indigestible plant parts, such as banana stems, leaves, nutshells and corncobs, while also consuming clothing, birds’ feathers, wool, and cotton balls.
A concerning turn occurred when he consumed asbestos, widely available in historic times before its deadly nature was known. Hoelzel’s problem got him recognized through an “Assistant in Physiology” role, as well as being called the “Human Billy Goat.” Anton Julius Carlson, Chairman of the Physiology Department at the University of Chicago, eventually discovered Hoelzel, setting up experiments with him that included testing whether fasting would relieve hunger, which made Hoelzel incredibly skinny after 15 days. Charting the time taken for foreign objects to pass through the digestive tract was another tough experiment undertaken by Hoelzel while working with Carlson, with a variety of rates documented depending on the type of material.
4. George Stratton
George Stratton was not just any psychologist; he was a dedicated scientist who undertook self-experimentation that could probably drive the most normal people out of their minds. During his graduate and post-graduate research, Stratton studied with the famous German psychologist Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt at his Leipzig, Saxony laboratory, where he wore goggles that turned his vision upside down. Stratton’s glasses forced the brain to compensate for the visual inversion. At first, Stratton felt ill and confused by the upside down landscape, but soon, he got used to the change and the view from behind the goggles appeared to return to normal.
Upon removing the glasses seven days later, the normal view to which Stratton had become adjusted then seemed itself abnormal for a time. Not only did Stratton turn his world upside down, he undertook additional experiments that involved confusing the left with the right to see how human perception would be affected. To break up the link between vision and touch, he wore mirrors that induced a virtual out of body experience, causing him to see himself from above when looking straight. This caused Stratton to feel that his body was located somewhere other than where touch told him he was actually located.
3. Giovanni Battista Grassi
Italian experimenter Giovanni Battista Grassi was both a master scientist and an exceedingly bold student of the gruesome. Born in 1854 in Rovellasca and living to the age of 71, Grassi studied not only malaria but a range of parasitic worms. It would be an understatement to say the man took risks. Grassi undertook what might be the single most disgusting act of human ingestion in recorded history: he ate live roundworm eggs taken directly from a deceased person who was known to have suffered a serious roundworm infection. These were not just small roundworms, either.
The eggs were of the study species Ascaris lumbricoides, a notorious giant roundworm that grows to 14 inches in human hosts. The purpose of the study? To learn how roundworms can be transmitted between hosts. The gruesome act of ingestion took place on August 30, 1879. The previous host had died a little less than a year beforehand, on October 10, 1878. Grassi swallowed the eggs and waited. When 22 days passed, fresh eggs were in the waste of the scientist who had become his own biology guinea pig. The discovery was conclusive proof that exposure to an infected source is how roundworm infections occur in new hosts, a useful finding in a time when spontaneous generation was a popular concept.
2. Tim Friede
Mad science is where the boundaries between wanton self-destruction and laboratory style research intersect. Tim Friede enters this gray area as he tries experiments that would kill most people. Friede has been bitten by snakes 160 times — on purpose — throughout the course of his 16 year (to date) research career. Just how has he survived? By developing immunity over time. The purpose of Friede’s passionate but exceedingly dangerous work is his conviction that self-immunization against snake bites is a thing, with the goal of seeing vaccines to snake bites developed.
Friede is concerned about the thousands of deaths that occur annually worldwide as a result of snake attacks on humans. Vaccination against snake bites would provide even greater protection than after-the-fact delivery of antivenin, which is not always available in time, or at all. The most extreme self-tests he has conducted include back to back bites from unusually venomous snakes. Friede was bitten by a taipan and then a black mamba, surviving what would be fatal to most people in a quarter of an hour. A harsh lesson was taught by two cobra bites, however, when the “overdose” put him into a coma after he flatlined, saved by medical intervention just in time.
1. Allan Blair
Black Widow spiders get a bad rap, and for good reason. Their bite is actually 15 times as powerful as that of your average rattlesnake. The catch is they are so tiny the bite is frequently not enough venom to be lethal, despite its potency. Born in 1900 and living until 1948, University of Alabama medical school professor Allan Blair was not content with statistics, biology articles, and case studies. In his time, Black Widow bites were less well understood than they are now, so he let a Black Widow bite him. The provoked spider attack sent Blair to hospital where he stayed for two days prior to discharge and eventual recovery.
The harm to himself included suffering severe pain, not to mention the local damage from the bite. Yet the experience, which was well publicized, served to silence Black Widow skeptics who believed the spider’s danger was vastly overrated. After the November 16, 1933 Tuscaloosa News ran a story titled “U. Of A. Professor Lets Spider Bite Him, Suffers 3 Days Agony,” Blair was hailed for his ‘courage, persistence and skill’. He certainly made a scientific exercise of his painful experience. After the bite, Blair wrote “lab notes” for a full two hours documenting his symptoms until they got so bad that his assistants had to fill in for the rest of the two days.