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Crazy Times Doctors Experimented on Themselves

Written by Jehron Baggaley

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Intro

                We often say that the past was the worst, and when it comes to medicine, we really mean it. Just a couple hundred years ago, doctors were prescribing heroin for a child’s cough, chowing down on mummified human remains to relieve all sorts of ailments, and resorting to bloodletting when nothing else seemed to work. In fact, George Washington is believed to have died after losing nearly 40% of his blood in an attempt to cure a throat infection. But these days, the field of medicine is one of the most advanced and technologically complex industries on the planet. So how did we go from bloodletting to the point where doctors are now able to successfully remove and replace a patient’s failing heart? Well, the answer is loads of research, trial and error, and, of course, thousands and thousands of experiments.

For obvious reasons, most experiments are performed on animals before the treatments are deemed safe enough to test on humans, but as you can tell from the title of this post, this isn’t always the case. In the last century, several scientists went above and beyond their colleagues and experimented on themselves in the name of science. From injecting snake venom to performing self-surgery, here are some of the craziest doctors that became their own guinea pigs.

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DIY Medical Procedures

                They say if you want something done right – do it yourself. But surely this doesn’t apply to surgery, right? Well, there are actually several instances of experimental self-surgery in the last century.

                Evan O’Neill Kane was born in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s to a family featuring several doctors. He followed in their footsteps, graduating from Jefferson Medical University and eventually becoming head surgeon at Kane summit hospital in Kane, Pennsylvania. Yes, a hospital named after his family in a town also named after his family, they were a pretty big deal as his dad had been a Major General for the Union in the American Civil War.

                Kane brought a thinking-outside-the-box type of approach to medicine. He made great strides in several fields, including trauma surgery for injured railroad workers, improving asbestos treatment, and even innovations in brain surgery. But perhaps he is most well-known for his die-hard opinion that surgeons of his day were over-reliant on general anesthesia. You know, the one that puts you to sleep while the doctors poke around in your organs. In fairness, the main general anesthesia at the time, ether, was a lot more dangerous and far less predictable than modern-day anesthetics. 

                But Kane wasn’t content to simply voice his opinion on the matter. To prove to the world that a patient didn’t need to be completely unconscious for surgery, and to ensure that it wouldn’t be too painful, Dr. Kane took it upon himself to remove his own appendix in 1921, at age 60. With plenty of spectators, he applied Novocain to the lower right side of his abdomen, the drug commonly used by dentists to numb your mouth for a cavity filling. With the help of several mirrors placed around his abdomen, Dr. Kane successfully removed his appendix and stitched himself back up. The experimental operation was such a success that he felt well enough to return home the very next day. Dr. Kane operated on himself several more times throughout his life, but nothing compared to the appendix removal. Though he is recognized as the first to take on such a task, he was surprisingly not the last. John McLaren was an Australian Army Officer who performed the same surgery with no anesthesia and a pocketknife in 1944, and Soviet scientist Leonid Rogozov had no other choice but to operate on himself when his appendix became infected while in Antarctica.

                But at least the appendix isn’t a vital organ. It would be far too dangerous to experiment on say, your own heart, right?

                Werner Theodor Otto Forssmann had no such fears. In 1929, he speculated that a catheter could be used not only in the bladder, but also in the heart. Through the catheter tube, heart defects could be diagnosed, and drugs could even be delivered, but no one had ever tested such an idea as it was deemed too dangerous.

                Forssmann’s department chief denied his requests to experiment with the idea out of fear that it would simply kill whatever patient agreed to it, so Forssmann decided to just try it out on himself. He found a nurse who agreed to assist him, but only on the condition that she would be the test subject, not him. Forssman pretended to agree with her, but, after strapping the nurse to the operating table, he proceeded to work on himself instead.  

                After applying a bit of local anesthesia, he inserted a urinary catheter into his median cubital vein, that’s the one on the inside of your elbow that blood is usually drawn from. After pushing it part of the way through his vein and up towards his heart, he was past the point of no return. He released the nurse and together they walked to the X ray department, where he finished threading the catheter all 60 centimeters into his heart. X ray films showed that the tube was resting in his right atrium.

                As you can guess, his boss was pretty pissed when he heard that Forssmann had gone ahead with the experiment anyway, but his anger quickly subsided when he realized how monumental the discovery was. After the X rays were verified, Forssmann was authorized to repeat the procedure, but this time to administer medicine to the heart of a terminally ill woman. The operation was a success and the woman’s condition quickly improved.

                Forssmann’s life took a few turns after this success. Because of his self-experimentation, he had to face disciplinary measures at his hospital, and ended up transferring between several locations. Eventually his reputation had spread, and he couldn’t get a job in cardiology, so had to change his specialty to urology.

                Things only got worse when Forssmann joined an up-and-coming political group you may have heard of known as the Nazi Party. He became a medical officer in the army and worked his way up the ranks until he ended up an allied prisoner of war.

                It took him several years after the war’s end to get back into medicine, but by now his hard work was beginning to pay off. Physicians Dickinson Richards and André Frédéric Cournand had stumbled upon Forssmann’s old papers and immediately saw the potential in them. They expanded upon his initial research of cardiac catheters and found new ways to use them in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease, resulting in a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine being awarded to all three men – Richards, Cournand, and Forssmann. After receiving his award, he became an honorary member of several medical societies around the world, even far away in the United States. Forssmann raised two of his children to be doctors and lived until the age of 74 when he died of, ironically, heart failure.

Don’t Try This at Home

                 Venom is nature’s deadliest invention, and it’s found in animals all around the globe. Europe has it pretty easy in this category, but North America has dozens of venomous species of spiders and snakes, and, well, if you’re from Australia you’re more than familiar with the concept.

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                Black Widow spiders are one of the most well-known of the bunch. Easily recognized by their dark black color and signature red mark, their fangs carry a venom known as a neurotoxin, which targets the body’s nervous system. Various species of black widow can be found throughout North America, Australia, Africa, and well, really anywhere they’ve hitched a ride to on a cargo ship.

                But for a long time, there was a bit of debate as to exactly how harmful a black widow bite was to a human. Was it deadly, extremely painful, or just a mild bite? Reports were scattered and, understandably, there were few actual experiments set up to determine the symptoms and their duration in a person. The tests that had been performed so far hadn’t accounted for other variables and, for several reasons, were deemed unscientific, so in 1933, Professor Allan Blair from the University of Alabama decided to solve the case once and for all.

                Blair, surrounded by physicians, let an adult black widow inject him with its venom, and then proceeded to document his symptoms and their level of pain. The headlines on the local newspaper that day read:

                “Blair chronicled the bite’s effects on his body for two hours, until he could write no more. And then his assistants took over for the remaining two days.”

                The notes of his symptoms include intense, searing pain that lasted up to 12 hours, as well as muscle spasms, a fever, vomiting, severe body aches, and a splitting headache. He made a full recovery after a couple days and was praised in the scientific world for his bravery. Today he even has a cancer research center named after him in Saskatchewan. Interestingly enough, Blair was also intending to take a second bite from the same spider to see if immunity could be built up to the venom, but the pain was so incredibly intense from the first bite that he canceled the second half of the experiment.

                The bite from a black widow is indeed quite painful, but at the very least it is rarely lethal even if left untreated, especially for an adult. The same can’t be said, however, for a certain group of reptiles that have been on the earth for over a hundred million years: snakes.

                Snakes are among the deadliest animals on the planet. In fact, they’ve been a historical threat to humans for so long it’s no surprise that nearly 50% of people feel uneasy being near them, and recent neuroscience research is uncovering neural pathways in primates that are specifically linked to detecting snakes as quickly as possible. They’re stealthy, quick, and deadly. But, unlike Indiana Jones, none of that bothers the legendary Tim Friede.

                With a bit of a different backstory from all the doctors in this post, Friede is truck mechanic from Wisconsin. Starting in the year 2000, he began injecting himself with diluted snake venom in an attempt to build up immunity. By the time he was bitten by his pet Egyptian Cobra the next year, he already had enough immunity to survive.

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By increasing the dosage for over 10 years, he reached the point where he could shake off a bite from an inland taipan, the most venomous snake on land. For reference, a single bite from an inland taipan carries enough venom to kill over 100 adult humans, or 250,000 mice. Bites from the snake are incredibly rare because of its remote habitat, but if you’re unlucky enough to get bitten you’ll likely meet your maker within 30 to 40 minutes of the encounter as the venom quicky paralyzes your lungs. But Friede, with years of immunity in his body, only experiences swelling at the bite location, and no serious side effects. On his YouTube channel he can be seen taking a bite from both an inland taipan and a black mamba back-to-back and living to tell the tale, as well as several other snakes that would certainly be a death sentence for anyone but him.

                In 2017, he joined forces with immunologist Jacob Glanville, and the two have been working towards using Friede’s immunized blood to create an all-purpose antivenin. These days, he’s given up self-immunizing, as his invincible antibodies have already been passed on to the researchers. The universal antivenin that the team was hoping for hasn’t been found yet, but Friede remains hopeful, having said,

“Obviously, it hasn’t worked yet…Will it? Yes, it f***king will.”

Each year, around 100,000 people are killed by venomous snakes. If Friede’s blood turns out to be the key to manufacturing a universal antivenin, his self-experimentation could save thousands of lives.

Down the Hatch

                Put briefly, an ulcer is a painful sore that develops in your stomach lining. These can block your intestines, make you vomit, and even bleed. They’ve been linked to increased risks of stomach cancer and can even be fatal if they burst open. But for such a serious medical issue, it might be surprising to learn that no one really knew what caused ulcers for quite some time. It was thought that there might be a genetic component, and that smoking increased the risk of developing one, but nobody could nail it down. The general idea by the late 1970s was that ulcers were caused by an excess of stomach acid and too much spicy food, but antacid and diet treatments didn’t have a very high success rate among patients, and two doctors had an idea of why.

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                Physicians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall were working together at the Royal Perth Hospital when they noticed something peculiar: every one of their ulcer patients showed signs of the same bacteria in their stomach lining. Together, they hypothesized that this microbe, H Pylori, was the cause of ulcers, and received a year of funding to find more conclusive evidence.

                Even from the beginning, they were working at a disadvantage. At the time, it was taught that the stomach didn’t contain any bacteria, so a lot of doctors shrugged off the hypothesis without giving it much thought. When their trials began, the lab results from first 30 stomach samples showed no growth of the bacteria, but it actually turned out that a lab worker had thrown the samples away when nothing grew after two days. For one reason or another though, the 31st sample hadn’t been tossed, and stayed in the lab throughout the whole weekend, and on the next Monday, to everyone’s amazement, a small culture of H Pylori was growing.

                After a few more verifying tests, the two were confident that they had finally found some solid evidence linking bacteria to ulcer formation and submitted their findings to the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, but the reviewers turned their paper down and marked it as one of the worst of the whole year.  

                 Undeterred, Doctors Warren and Marshall continued their experiments, but met a lot of dead ends. Piglets injected with samples failed to culture the bacteria, and with a fair amount of ridicule, future funding for the project was looking bleak. Marshall at one point said,

“Everyone was against me, but I knew I was right.”

Finally, embracing his inner mad scientist to prove everyone wrong once and for all, Marshall drank a concoction, basically a meat broth, full of H Pylori bacteria, hoping to develop an ulcer in a year or two. To everyone’s surprise, his symptoms started just three days later, when the waste product of the multiplying bacteria gave him the absolute worst breath in the solar system.

After five days, he began to vomit, and after 8 days, a biopsy proved that the bacteria had indeed colonized in his stomach. After fourteen days of constant examinations and symptom recording, Marshall began a series of antibiotics, which successfully killed off the bacteria in his system and alleviated his symptoms.

Their study was published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1985, and the scientific world had finally been convinced of their genius. Both doctors received scores of awards, including a shared Nobel Prize, and thanks to their findings, doctors today can quickly and effectively treat ulcers with a simple round of antibiotics.

This discover also led to a radical shift in human physiology. Like we mentioned earlier, it was originally thought that the stomach was bacteria free, but today scientists have identified up to 500 different types of bacteria that can be found in your stomach, of which many are crucial for digestion and communication with the nervous system. Abnormalities in gut culture is even hypothesized to be linked to several more illnesses, including depression, meaning there is still plenty of research to be done in the area.

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Perhaps their work is best summed up by their certificate of election to the Royal Society, which claims their work to be “one of the most radical and important changes in medical perception in the last 50 years.”

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